Hundreds of students in Tuolumne County public high schools walked out of their classrooms shortly before 10 a.m. Wednesday to take part in a nationwide protest against gun violence.
They gathered at designated spots on their respective campuses and took turns talking about how they were affected by a mass shooting on Feb. 14 that left 17 people dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and what they believe their generation can do to help prevent such massacres from happening.
“Adults have told us this is what happens, this is life, this is normal, and they don’t take a stand against it,” said Hunter Anderson, 18, a senior at Summerville High School in Tuolumne. “But this is our generation. We’re the next people coming up.”
Anderson spoke from a podium near the center of the basketball court at the Summerville High School gymnasium in front of about 150 students, representing roughly a quarter of the school’s enrollment.
A group of students also formed a circle and prayed around a flagpole outside of the gym.
About 10 miles away in Sonora, roughly 175 students at Sonora High School gathered in the center of the campus to participate in the national walkout.
The 17-minute protest, one minute for each of the victims in the Parkland shooting, was held at thousands of schools across the United States at the same time on Wednesday. It was part of a student-led movement sweeping the nation to demand that lawmakers in Washington, D.C., approve gun control legislation.
School administrators at Summerville High watched over the students from the periphery of the gym but didn’t interfere because they wanted the demonstration to be led by the students themselves.
Summerville High Principal Diana Harford said the gym was provided for the students as a way to keep them in a safe, centralized location that would be the least disruptive.
Summerville High senior Victoria Smith, who is doing a project about Kindness Week, and Rajah Foerstner, 17, a junior, started the demonstration in the gym at 10 a.m. by reminding those gathered about the importance of showing respect for each other.
“No matter your political views, we are all human and deserve to be heard and not judged,” said Foerstner.
Students spent the ensuing 17 minutes approaching the podium one by one and sharing their thoughts on the latest mass shooting, gun laws in the U.S. and how they’ve been inspired by the recent uprising of young people voicing their opinions on the matter.
Many of the students talked about how “thoughts, prayers and condolences” offered by politicians after such tragedies is no longer enough.
One student said she doesn’t understand how a person under 21 isn’t allowed to purchase alcohol or tobacco, but they can buy the same type of semi-automatic rifle that the alleged shooter used to gun down 14 students and three faculty members at the Florida school last month.
Kevin Wychopen, a crisis counselor at Summerville High, praised the respectful tone inside the gym after the 17 minutes were over and students began returning to their classrooms.
“I think these kids are amazing,” Wychopen said. “I say it every day. They’re not afraid to express their opinions and be who they really are.”
At Sonora High School, more than a dozen students who were gathered for the walkout also spoke to their peers about their stance on the issue.
Several of the students who spoke offered motivational statements about how their generation can be the spark that leads to change.
“We are all one person, it doesn’t matter if we are spread across the nation,” said Sonora High senior Jordain Cragholm-mook, 17. “This is just the beginning of change, and it’s far from the end. It starts with us.”
President Donald Trump has proposed arming teachers on school campuses, but Sonora High sophomore Iris Moreno, 15, said she doesn’t believe bringing more guns into schools is the answer.
Moreno said she’s tired of hearing about one school shooting after another while trying to go through her life doing the things that teenagers normally do.
Sonora High freshman Greg Cook said no matter what side of the debate you stand on, more needs to be done to stem the flow of gun violence in schools. However, he believes that arming faculty members would be an effective way to quickly accomplish that goal.
Cook also encouraged his fellow students to focus on bettering themselves and finding healthy ways of taking out their anger.
Sonora High junior Anthony Ayala, 16, criticized the government for not doing more to protect children in schools from gun violence.
“Why do we as students have to take time out of our school day and stop our education to protest something the government should be doing for us?” he asked.
After nearly an hour in the drizzling rain, the crowd dispersed and returned to classrooms.
Sonora High Principal Ben Howell thanked the students before they left for coming out to voice their opinions and being respectful of each other’s views.
“One day, you are going to be the people in charge. Your children are going to be in charge one day, and so the decisions you make and the tone that you set makes all the difference,” Howell said. “I’m proud of you.”
At Bret Harte Union High in Angels Camp, 50 to 70 students walked off campus and held signs along the road beside the school, and they were given unexcused absences when they returned to campus, Mike Chimente, the Bret Harte Union High district superintendent, said in a phone interview.
Tricia Slavik, a resident of Murphys who helped found a group called Calaveras Advocates 4 Massacre Prevention, sent a video and announcement to Mother Lode news agencies headlined about the walkout.
Chimente said he spoke to students before the planned walkout, and students understood they would get unexcused absences and face discipline if they left campus. They said they wanted to walk to the road to have their voices heard by the greater community.
“A student has the right to protest and demonstrate,” Chimente said. “But when students walk off campus it's a safety issue. So they get an unexcused absence for each, and according to our policy handbook, discipline kicks in for consequences.”
The school also had “powerful lunchtime activity in the gym,” Chimente said, referring to speeches by students who were allowed to meet and demonstrate without staff supervision.
“We let them do that on their own, for more than a half hour,” Chimente said. “I stuck my head in once in a while. It was a series of students who got up and spoke and I thought that was very powerful.”
Slavik said in a phone interview she is mother of two Bret Harte Union High School graduates, and she has a niece who is a graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the school where 17 people were killed Feb. 14 by a 19-year-old expelled student with an AR-15 type assault rifle.
The group was founded after the October 2015 fatal shootings of eight students and an assistant professor at the Umpqua Community College campus near Roseberg, Oregon, by a 26-year-old student.
Slavik said she supported the Bret Harte students who walked off campus Wednesday. She said she was there with a 14-year-old cheerleader and honor roll student, Devyn Pryor, and with Devyn’s mom. Slavik said Devyn helped organize the walkout.
“Devyn said she was afraid of getting detention but she wanted to make her voice heard,” Slavik said. “She had a sign that said ‘Parkland Strong.”
Some motorists honked their horns in approval, Slavik said. Others made vulgar hand signals.
Meanwhile, a group of 50 people gathered at Courthouse Square in downtown Sonora at the same time as the walkout on school campuses.
Nearly all of those gathered at the park were adults who wanted to show support for the student movement. They held candles and signs that they showed to passing motorists on Washington Street.
Some drivers honked their horns or waved or both, while others voiced their disapproval. One man in a silver crew-cab pickup drove by slow while screaming obscenities, including a homophobic slur, at the demonstrators.
Another person in an SUV shouted “Go home freaks!” to which a person holding a sign shouted back, “We are home! We’re in America.”
Jesikka Wylie, of Tuolumne, brought her 1-year-old daughter, Marlee, to the demonstration, because she wanted to stand in solidarity with the students who were protesting at schools on Wednesday.
“I want to show support to any high schoolers who want to walk out today,” Wylie said. “To show some of us are fighting for their safety.”
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