Why Local Students Walked Out

By on March 15, 2018

Student-organized protests drew hundreds of participants, and at one school, counter-protesters

Students advocating for gun control walked out at Teton Valley High School alongside students defending the NRA.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – On Wednesday hundreds of students from Jackson Hole High School, Jackson Hole Community School, Journeys School and Teton Valley High School in Idaho left their classrooms at 10 a.m. in solidarity with the victims and survivors of the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

They joined thousands of young people across the country—students from more than 2,800 schools participated in the walkout, USA Today reported.

JHHS sophomore River Gayton called the walkout a powerful experience. At 10 a.m., dozens of students left their classrooms. They had planned to walk outside to the soccer field, but because of a bomb threat made at Jackson Hole Middle School the night before, school administrators told them they would only be allowed to walk into the gym.

“It didn’t feel right,” Gayton said. “We started in the gym, but one-by-one people started going outside anyway. That was the original plan, we fulfilled the purpose of the walkout.”

Students remained on the field for 17 minutes—one minute for each of the people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Student leaders handed out slips of paper with the names of Wyoming representatives and encouraged participants to call and ask how legislators plan to protect them moving forward. They also passed around a petition demanding lawmakers take action.

In the days following the attack, JHHS students observed a moment of silence in the mornings, but besides that, Gayton said there hasn’t been much conversation. “I feel like we haven’t talked about it a lot because it creates so much controversy, but we could talk about it a lot more.”

The walkout gave students the opportunity to be heard.

“By doing the walkout, the high school gave us the huge opportunity to use our voices,” Gayton said. “The main message we want people to hear is we can’t just do nothing anymore … unless something changes, more lives will be lost.”

There has been some backlash.

Residents have accused students of following a fad, just trying to get out of school, being brainwashed by parents and focusing on the wrong issues. One commenter on a local website asked why students weren’t protesting teens texting and driving.

Rosemary Joseph, a senior at Teton Valley High School, said students understand exactly what they are standing up for and why. “It’s very clear what our agenda is. The people who hunt are not an issue. The people who bring semi-automatic weapons into school are.”

The walk-out is not a fad, she said. It is a reaction to a growing sense of fear. The day after Parkland, an anonymous shooting threat was made at TVHS. Joseph said she had a nightmare about a school shooting soon after: “That feeling resonated with me the rest of the day. I had so much anxiety just sitting at school.”

Two of her teachers acknowledged Parkland. One of them told students that in the future, they shouldn’t get up when the fire alarm goes off. First, the teacher will check the hallway to make sure there is not a shooter there.

Just a few days ago, the fire alarm did go off. It was a drill, but Joseph said she automatically was filled “with anxiety and fear.” So for Joseph, walking out felt like an obvious choice. She joined about 100 classmates. Participants held posters with slogans like, “I deserve the right to feel safe in school,” and “protect kids, not guns.”

Unlike in Jackson, however, there were counter-protestors. Some students gathered outside the school entrance and held signs that said, “Protect the 2nd Amendment” and “People kill people.”

Both Gayton and Joseph noticed that some classmates were chagrined by what they perceived as the political nature of the walkout. Gayton heard people say things like, “I’m just here to honor the victims, not to change gun laws.”

Joseph heard some angry students say that people cheering and bringing posters had ruined the event by making it political. “But the whole thing is a political movement,” she said, “That’s the point. If you want to give respect to the people who lost their lives, then you should want to make change, because if those people were alive to have a voice that is what they would say.”

To her, a shooting doesn’t feel like an abstract threat. “I know kids who have semi-automatic weapons. We’re all young and irresponsible, but they’re irresponsible young men with weapons … I’m concerned about it.”  

She is hopeful about spurring change, though. The senior class has raised money that is usually spent on a gift for the school. This year, Joseph is talking to school administrators about using the money to implement safety measures in the case of an attack instead.

At Journeys School about 70 middle and high school students walked out. Student organizer Leila Sandlin told participants they were there to honor the lives of the dead, and not to make a political statement. She read the names of the victims and then gave students the opportunity to talk.

“One middle schooler asked why people have to have semi-automatic weapons,” said Shoshana Kobrin, a Journeys teacher. “That was heartbreaking for me.”

Middle and high school students gather outside Journeys School in Jackson.

Journeys students and teachers focused the conversation on daily actions they can take in the face of what feels like unpredictable violence. “It’s not in our power to change politics at this moment so we talked about what we can do here, how we can be the change here,” Kobrin said. Students worked on mission statements focused on making the school as compassionate a space as possible. As Kobrin pointed out, “Most shooters haven’t felt supported in their communities. This is a reminder to be supportive and inclusive of one another.”

Journeys School plans to conduct a protocol training with high school students next week. After the Sandy Hook shooting, electronic locks were put on all the school doors. Students have typically been annoyed by them, Kobrin said, but are starting to feel that potential threats are more realistic. In a school with walls mostly made of windows, Journeys students are eager to know what they should do in the event of an attack, Kobrin said.

Students across the country are leading this movement, and Jackson is no exception. Amy Fulwyler, head of Jackson Hole Community School, said the 40 or so students who walked out initiated the activity. “The tone was thoughtful, positive and reflective. Students are encouraging each other to do what they can to address the issues they’re concerned about regarding school safety.”

Back in Teton Valley, Joseph pointed out that young people have always led social movements. “People say we don’t know what we’re doing or can’t understand … but this is one of those moments in history that is going to take young people to lead it because young people are the ones going through it.”

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