For student organizers, Wednesday's walkout was empowering
Among the hundreds of students across the Treasure Valley who walked out of class Wednesday morning, one hopes to be the future U.S. secretary of education.
Petra Hoffman, 13, a seventh-grader at Sage International, said she has big plans to stay involved with politics throughout her life. But first, she walked out of her design tech class at 11:30 a.m. to show solidarity with the survivors and mourn the dead of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. She encouraged other students to join her in a gathering to give pointers on how to contact their legislators and congressmen about important issues.
Students and teachers took to the streets beginning at 10 a.m. March 14 in about 2,500 protests across the country demanding safer schools and the end of mass school shootings.
Hoffman said she’s proud of fellow students who are joining the debate and organizing protests. She hopes adults understand “every student deserves an education, a safe education.”
“The best way to show adults this matters is to take their criticism and act to get our voices heard,” Hoffman said. “We are a generation to make change ... there are adults who are supportive and our teachers especially are supportive. But we’re going to make change.”
HUNDREDS GATHER AT THE STATEHOUSE
The Treasure Valley’s largest protest took place at the Statehouse on Wednesday morning, where the crowd slowly swelled to about 1,500 protesters from schools as near as Boise High School and as far as Borah High and Mountain View High.
Each student who spoke to Statesman reporters at the rally said they’d felt unsafe in their school at some point, thanks to threats of violence. But, they said, they’re hopeful that the outcry following the Parkland shooting is a sign that things are really going to change.
“We as young people connected with this (shooting),” said Garrett Richardson, a 16-year-old junior at Borah. “There are many ways to attack this.”
The list of mass shootings in the U.S. “just keeps growing,” Richardson said. Other Boise-area students agreed, rattling off incidents including Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Pulse, Las Vegas and, perhaps closest to home, Roseburg, Oregon.
Jasmyn Montgomery, an 18-year-old senior at Boise High, said she had lived in Oregon when instances of gun violence occurred there. She said she is still traumatized by the effects of the shootings.
“I can’t stand to lose another friend. I would love for guns to not be more valuable than (kids),” Montgomery said from the front steps of the Capitol building.
Montgomery and Richardson were part of a swarm — mostly students, but many of them adults — who laid down on the Statehouse steps during a moment of silence honoring victims of gun violence. They also streamed into the building, chanting “Go away, NRA” before filling four floors around the rotunda.
“It’s been an irrational fear of mine since I was in sixth grade, that someone would bring a gun to school. The majority (of other students) shrug it off, but I guarantee that people said ‘this won’t happen here’ before it happened in Parkland,” said Sadie Atkins, a junior at Borah High School.
NAMPA HIGH STUDENTS HOLD TWO PROTESTS
About 30 miles away at Nampa High School, hundreds of students gathered to remember the 17 people who were killed last month.
Two groups emerged — separated ideologically and physically — with 30 yards of grass in between.
Signs on one end of the walkout read “Books not bullets” and were accompanied by a loud chorus of “No more silence, end gun violence.” Their message was clear: gun reform is necessary to stop mass shootings.
Directly across the field stood a smaller contingency making their voices heard. Their message: while gun control won’t solve anything, arming teachers is a step in the right direction.
Although divided on the issue, everyone was there for the same reason: to memorialize the students were gunned down in Florida and to spark change. After discussions with school administrators, students are not going to be penalized for attending the 17-minute walkout.
“We are in memoriam too. We stand firmly behind those students. They’re brave, both the survivors and the victims,” said Nampa freshman Ethan Schmerer, one of the organizers of the Arm Our Teachers USA group. “We have to change something. It’s just that we don’t believe that something is gun control.”
Schmerer and fellow student, sophomore Porter Kindall, believe the purpose of the nationwide walkout has changed since the idea began. Instead of being about ending school shootings, it has become purely about the Second Amendment, something they feel won’t change things for the better.
The solution, in their opinion, matches their group’s slogan: save our children, arm our teachers.
Arming teachers would provide a deterrent for potential shooters while also providing more enforcement should an active situation occur, they said. At a large school like Nampa High, Kindall believes security wouldn’t be able to get every student to safety.
“These teachers have the heart to defend their students, but they don’t have the means,” Kindall said. “If we have a teacher in at least every building who could defend students, that would alleviate so much worry.”
Sophomores Autumn Morgan and Tehya Miller were two of the organizers behind the gun control side of Nampa High’s walkout.
Morgan and Miller said something as simple as a fire drill is a cause of stress, as the shooting in Parkland began after a fire alarm was pulled.
“We’re just really trying to make a change to motivate our legislators and politicians to do something,” Miller said. “It can happen anywhere. Just because it hasn’t yet doesn’t mean it’s not going to.”
The means to make that change happen, however, comes from higher up. As Miller said, they’re just teenagers. They don’t make the laws.
“What’s stopping it from happening to us?” Morgan said. “Whether you think it’s a mental issue or a gun issue, our politicians have done nothing to try and help that issue or solve it.”
The fact that students across the entire country are joining in solidarity to make themselves heard is a point of pride for Morgan. Perhaps thousands of voices can start the conversation.
“You know change is coming when kids start acting like adults and politicians start acting like kids,” Morgan said.
RESPONSE FROM ADULTS
School districts across the state have responded differently to the walkouts. Many are walking a fine line of supporting the students’ right to free speech and encouraging students to stay in school with other activities and assemblies, such as the one at Kuna High School.
The Kuna assembly was not mandatory for students to attend, and it was not intended to be political, according to an online post from Olivia Webster, one of Kuna’s student organizers. She said the assembly there is not about gun control, but rather school safety and remembering the 17 victims killed in Parkland.
“We are having representatives come to answer questions from students regarding their concerns of the safety of their school etc.,” she posted.
Students from Mountain View told the Statesman their school officials had been amicable. Atkins, 16, said she and other students weren’t deterred by some adults’ vocal criticisms of the rallies.
“This is our voice, and we can’t let people tell us we can’t be voicing our opinions,” Atkins said following the gathering at the Statehouse.
Gov. Butch Otter and other state officials have been pressed in recent weeks to answer questions about their stance on gun rights, gun control and school safety.
A day after the Parkland shooting, Otter said he believes the state has done as much as it can to deter mass shootings at schools. Top Idaho House and Senate leaders of both parties said otherwise in a Tuesday forum, speaking about mental health, background checks and other ideas.
Superintendent Sherri Ybarra announced on Monday a new $21 million initiative — Keep Idaho Students Safe — for greater investments into school safety at the start of the 2019 legislative session. The initiative calls for a grant to train security personnel in every school and a statewide crisis communications counseling position, among other efforts.
Idaho Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, will hold a public meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday night at Independence Indoor Shooting about public school safety and active shooter protection. Nate will advocate for his bill making its way through the Legislature that would encourage gun safety courses to be held in Idaho schools.
Some students at the Capitol building expressed frustration with adults, both at their reactions to the walkout and their reticence to pass gun control laws.
“We’re doing more to save our lives than they are,” said 17-year-old Hannah Byers.
Christina Lords also contributed to this report.