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Saturday, August 8, 2020

District-wide high school walkout calls for increased school safety

By Drew Stuart

More than a thousand students from Bellingham, Options, Squalicum and Sehome High Schools staged a walkout on Wednesday morning in response to continuous school shootings across the country.

Students for Action, the group leading the event, both came into existence and began organizing the march on Sunday afternoon. Since that time, the event gained massive attention over social media.

Video by October Yates

The walkout began at 11:22 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 21. This time was chosen as it was the same time that the shooting in Parkland, Florida, which killed 17 people, began last week. At Bellingham High School, students poured out of their classrooms and filed into the Performing Arts Center to hear their fellow classmates speak.

Several student speakers advocated speaking up about gun-control and raising awareness on this issue to the public. Will Barnes, a student at Bellingham High School, said students, regardless of age, needed to speak up about these issues.

“We have to step up and make a difference,” Barnes said.

Mass shootings are a significant problem in the United States, of which school shootings are only a part. According to nonprofit Gun Violence Archive and reporting by The New York Times, 239 school shootings have occurred since the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. In these shootings, 438 people have been shot and 138 killed.

Gun Violence Archive collects data from over 2,000 media sources and defines a school shooting as an incident that occurs on school property when students, faculty and/or staff are on the premises.

Over a thousand people showed up to City Hall to protest. // Photo by October Yates

Linda Miller, the principal of Bellingham High School, said that while the school is not actively supporting the walkout, it wouldn’t prevent students from participating. Miller said that classes continued on a normal schedule, despite the walkout.

After the speech, students marched toward City Hall down Young Street. Local law enforcement officers blocked off Cornwall Avenue to allow the students to march toward the seat of Bellingham’s government without risking harm.

Zach Murdzia, a student at Bellingham High School, voiced his thoughts on the walkout at City Hall.

“Today’s not about dividing and making this a partisan issue,” Murdzia said. “It’s about coming together and raising awareness on an issue that really is affecting both sides of the spectrum”

Murdzia is one of many young students that has grown up in a country facing mass shooting after mass shooting.

Photo by October Yates

“The first major instance I remember was Sandy Hook. I came home from my school, and the first thing I saw is the headline that 20-some children have been shot in an elementary school,” Murdzia said. His initial reaction was that of disgust.

Murdzia also mentioned that while people might dismiss the walkout as students merely skipping out on school, he was not participating in the walkout lightly.

“I’m missing a chemistry test, and I have a 4.0,” Murdzia said. “We’re here because we want to be here, not because we’re trying to get out of school.”

The walkout was one to show solidarity with the victims of the Parkland shooting, but was largely meant to express students’ frustrations with the growing number of school shootings.

Proposed remedies to America’s high number of mass shootings varied depending on who was speaking, but the general sentiment was clear: lawmakers need to hunker down on gun regulation.

Students at City Hall also talked about why a protest was necessary in the first place. Most students at the protest were under voting age and frustrated by their lack of power to grab the attention of lawmakers.

Paige Censale, one of the event’s speakers, said that a protest was the best way to get traction for the cause.

“You can send letters to your congressman, but that’s not gonna draw attention,” Censale said.

Censale helped organize speakers at City Hall, and made sure they had prepared remarks prior to the event. She said that Students for Action wants to break the cycle of mass shootings, but they are also concerned with the welfare of students in general.

Photo by October Yates

Censale went on to say that while she knows guns are an ingrained part of American culture, the toll that mass school shootings were taking on her were becoming too much to bear.

“It’s just been too much. We’re sick of it at this point,” Censale said.

However, it wasn’t only students who marched in support of the event. Many adults were seen picketing as well, protesting the lack of action on instituting meaningful policy changes.

Elizabeth Hartsoch, the vice president of the Riveters Collective, expressed her support for students making their voices heard to the public.

“It’s absurd that we as adults haven’t been able to keep them safe in their schools,” Hartsoch said.  “I’m fully supportive of their walking out.”

The Riveters Collective helped spread the word about the walkout on social media, and supplied the students with a sound system to make their speeches at City Hall heard by as many people as possible.

Fliers and the hashtag “#studentsforaction” spread the event across social media.

An email from District Superintendent Greg Baker was sent to parents of students from four Bellingham high schools, and four middle schools informing them of the rally on Tuesday, Feb. 20.

“We are proud that student representatives from all four high schools are collaborating together and taking action for something they believe in,” the email said. “It’s also a good lesson in democracy and the right to have a voice in government.”

After more than an hour protesting at City Hall, students began to disperse and return to school.

Photo by October Yates

Parents of several students were proud of what their kids had done.

Jill Smith, a parent with two kids in Bellingham Public Schools, said she saw the walkout as a moment that should be remembered.

“I think it’s time for a change,” Smith said.

More walkouts are being planned nationally, and there are both national and local groups organizing around the issue of gun violence.

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