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Clark County students walk out of class to protest gun violence

By , Columbian Education Reporter, and
, Columbian Staff Writer
10 Photos
Camas High School freshman Jaryn Lasentia, 15, in black, embraces fellow freshman Willow Buffett, 14, before returning to class after the school walkout to protest gun violence Wednesday morning, March 14, 2018. The walkout was one of many held across the country honoring those killed in the Parkland, Fla., shooting that left 17 people dead.
Camas High School freshman Jaryn Lasentia, 15, in black, embraces fellow freshman Willow Buffett, 14, before returning to class after the school walkout to protest gun violence Wednesday morning, March 14, 2018. The walkout was one of many held across the country honoring those killed in the Parkland, Fla., shooting that left 17 people dead. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Hundreds of students protested across Clark County campuses Wednesday, while tens of thousands across the country organized in the wake of continued mass gun violence across the nation.

District officials and parents in the Vancouver, Battle Ground, Evergreen and Camas districts estimate schools had walkouts ranging from a few dozen students to a few hundred students at middle and high schools.

In most cases, students walked out for 17 minutes, one for each person killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School one month earlier. Students at most schools were marked with unexcused absences for the period, a punishment akin to cutting class.

These are students galvanized into action after childhoods that have been marked by mass shootings in school and universities, from last month’s shooting in Parkland, Fla., back to Newtown, Conn., in 2012, when a gunman killed 26 people and himself at Sandy Hook Elementary School. They called for stricter gun laws, safer campuses — and for their classmates to be kinder to one another.

Here’s a look at demonstrations at two local campuses.

Fort Vancouver High School

Fort Vancouver High School freshman Laila Lopez was so moved by the story of one of the victims killed in last month’s shooting in Florida that she turned to poetry.

Lopez, 15, was among those huddled with her classmates in the parking lot at Meadow Homes Park, a neighborhood park a few blocks from their school. They joined students across Clark County — and the nation — on Wednesday who walked out of school to demonstrate in solidarity with the victims of last month’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Jaime Guttenberg, a 14-year-old and one of the youngest victims, had once been called “tough as nails” by her father, Lopez told the quiet crowd of students.

“Tough as nails,” she read from her poem. “We defend you, because though you are gone, it does not make you silent. Tough as nails. We now take this time to share your story, one that should have been longer.”

One by one, 17 students shared the stories of the 17 victims who were killed last month after a gunman opened fire at the campus. Some had been accepted to college and earned scholarships. They were teachers and coaches. Others played sports, and danced. They were brothers, sisters, sons and daughters.

“It was all these different types of people who we lost,” said Myrainah Blancas, a 16-year-old junior who helped organize Fort Vancouver High School’s walkout. “They had so much life ahead of them.”

Blancas and Lindsey Luis, another 16-year-old junior, organized the march from campus to the nearby park.

Vancouver Public Schools spokeswoman Pat Nuzzo estimated that another 300 to 400 students stayed behind at the campus to demonstrate. Students at other district schools, such as Columbia River High School, Vancouver School of Arts and Academics and other campuses, participated in their own demonstrations.

Those marching down the street waved signs reading such things as: “Remember when the only thing we were afraid of at school was a pop quiz?” “Children or guns?” “Why is this even a question?” and “No more silence, end gun violence.” The occasional passerby honked and waved, and some curious onlookers who were at the park watched the demonstration.

Students in the crowd made sweeping calls for changes to the nation’s gun laws while decrying campus bullying and asking their peers to be kinder to one another.

They called for the age to purchase rifles such as  the AR-15 to be raised to 21, and for bump stocks — trigger devices allowing semi-automatic rifles to fire more rapidly — to be banned. (Washington became the fourth state to ban the modification device this month.)

They called on their peers to register to vote as soon as they turn 18 and to write to their legislators and congressional representatives.

“It is not OK that politicians won’t do anything about us, when we are dying every day,” Luis said.

In the midst of politically charged speeches, students also revealed their own anxieties about attending school at all after continued school shootings. One described her little brothers, 9 and 12, crying because they were afraid. One said their “future is dying,” while another said all she wants is to wake up in the morning and know she’ll be safe at school.

“It’s funny how you can’t go in and buy a beer, but a 19-year-old can easily go in and buy a rifle,” 14-year-old Luis Morales told the crowd.

Struggling through tears, he encouraged his classmates to pursue their dreams and take nothing for granted.

17 Photos
Fort Vancouver High School freshman Madilyn Bortolini, left, Sofia Mendez, center, and Teanna Francisco, right, gather for a school walkout to protest gun violence Wednesday morning, March 14, 2018 at Meadow Homes Park. The walkout was one of many held across the country honoring those killed in the Parkland, Fla. last month.
Fort Vancouver High School Walkout Photo Gallery

“You never know when someone is going to come in your school and shoot you,” Morales said.

Navon Morgan, a 16-year-old junior, called on legislators to take action, saying it shouldn’t be easy to buy “a weapon of war.”

“There’s a lot of harsh realities we have to face as teenagers,” Morgan said. “Being mowed down in your classroom should not be one of them.”

— Katie Gillespie

Camas High School

CAMAS — The five students who planned a walkout at Camas High School on Wednesday had not met in person until Friday.

8 Photos
Camas High School sophomore Shannon McDaniel, 16, in stripes, and freshman Caleb Ashworth, 15, pause in a moment of silence outside their school Wednesday morning, March 14, 2018 to honor the memory of the 17 people killed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla. The Camas school walkout was among the many that took place in high schools around the country.
Camas High School walkout Photo Gallery

Some were friends or had classes together, but a few weeks ago, Tanner O’Brien, Catherine Garcia, Sarah Wells-Moran, Monica Chang and Abigail Jiang all decided to team up to organize a walkout Wednesday at the school in support of victims of the shooting in Parkland, Fla., a month prior.

The group spent a few weeks emailing and direct messaging on Twitter, and met as a group for the first time so they could discuss plans for the walkout with school administrators.

The five aren’t in leadership positions at the school but were all trying to get events going in the community after drawing inspiration from the Parkland students’ activism work in the aftermath of the shooting.

“They turned grief and loss into activism and action,” Chang said of the Parkland students who spoke out after the tragedy.

5 Photos
Students at Columbia River in north Hazel Dell were among the thousands across the country to walk out of class to honor the victims of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., and to demand policy change.
Columbia River High School walkout Photo Gallery

The students in Camas tried to do the same by organizing a walkout as part of a national series of walkouts Wednesday. More than 400 students crowded by the school’s entrance while the five organizing students read bios for the 17 students and staffers killed in the Parkland shooting. The walkout lasted 17 minutes: one for each victim.

The crowd was initially a chatty group, but once the organizers started reading the bios, the Camas crowd fell silent. Many in the crowd comforted each other, and plenty of students unsuccessfully tried to fight off tears.

The organizing group said it has been an emotional week for them researching all the students and staffers who were killed in Parkland while writing their bios.

“It’s powerful to humanize these events,” Chang said. “Normally, we just see the numbers on TV. Those are real people. Those are real children who are being killed.”

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They mentioned that Parkland had a reputation for being a safe city with good public schools, similar to Camas.

“These shootings are not just a problem for Parkland, or Las Vegas, or Sandy Hook,” Chang said. “These mass shootings are an American problem. The conversation after mass shootings is always far too temporary, but the grief and the loss these families feel is permanent.”

The group told the crowd that the walkout is the first step of many.

Every day this week, the organizing students, who formed a group called Never Again Southwest Washington, are registering students to vote at lunch and after school. They’ve also been going around during lunch asking students to sign a letter they intend to send to Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground. Garcia said they so far have about 300 signatures on the letter, which will discuss their concerns about certain gun laws.

Wells-Moran said political opinion at the school is split, and she called Camas High School a “purple school.” She also said that not all the students at the school were on board with the walkout or talking about gun reform. If any students who didn’t agree with the walkout participated, it wasn’t noticeable, and there didn’t seem to be a counterprotest of any kind going on outside.

The organizers set up a page online and on Facebook where students could sign up to attend. They had about 130 students say they were going to participate.

“I was really surprised by the turnout,” Jiang said. “More people showed up than we thought. Maybe a fourth of the school was there. I was shocked. It’s crazy to see this thing we thought of in our heads turn into a real event. We just want to allow students’ voices to be heard.”

The group is hopeful their efforts and the work students are doing around the country will continue on and lead to change in the country.

“We are the students of America. We have a political voice,” Chang said. “It’s time to use it.”

— Adam Littman

Columbian Education Reporter
Columbian Staff Writer