Hundreds of students at Astoria and Seaside high schools joined a national school walkout Wednesday against gun violence, one month after the fatal shooting of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
About 150 students each at Astoria and Seaside high schools walked out of class around 10 a.m., spending 17 minutes outside — one minute for each of the victims.
Astoria students took to the track, silently facing Marine Drive with signs calling for an end to violence and a focus on school safety.
Among the organizers of the demonstration were freshmen Elias Harold, 15, and Azaria Damghani, 14, who met with activist group Indivisible North Coast Oregon a week after the Florida shooting and started publicizing the walkout online and in posters around campus. The two students said they were surprised by the turnout.
“I think it’s sort of a solidarity thing, the fact that even though they’re across the nation, the fact that they had to die so young and out of nowhere,” Harold said.
Seven of the 17 victims in Florida were 14 years old.
“I think for me and the freshmen in this school, that hit them really hard,” Damghani said.
At Seaside High School, students gathered on the track for a protest more akin to a presentation than a march. Unlike many walkouts happening around the country, student organizer Sequoia Shand said the goal was focused on advocating for mutual respect for one another, rather than a stark emphasis on gun control.
For 17 minutes, 17 different students presented calls-to-action every minute about how students can support one another. Every statement was sandwiched between moments of silence.
“What we see in a lot of these shootings is that the person wasn’t treated the best. We’re taking the approach to focus on respect,” Shand said.
She said she supports gun restrictions, which were the driving force behind the demonstrations. “But it’s a very controversial topic. Not everyone supports gun regulations, but we can all come to a mutual agreement to treat people better,” she said.
After the demonstration in Astoria, Principal Lynn Jackson gathered the student demonstrators in the auditorium to talk about how they had just executed their rights under the First Amendment of the Constitution, including the right to a peaceful public assembly.
While about 150 students attended the demonstration, about 450 other students at the high school chose to remain in class for various reasons, some wearing orange in solidarity with the Florida victims, Jackson said.
“As you think about this process, petitioning the government for a redress of your grievances, I invite each of you to collaboratively communicate, not only with the 150 of you that are seated here today, but for the other 450 that are in those classes right now,” Jackson said.
In order to encourage participation, Seaside High School Principal Jeff Roberts scheduled a formal 20-minute break at 10 a.m. to accommodate the walkout. Roberts said when students approached him about the idea, they had a conversation about how to make the demonstration more active.
“This has been geared from a political statement to … what students can do to be the most inclusive as they can be,” Roberts said. “I asked them who they thought their audience was, and what they could do to impact school safety in 17 minutes.”
The demonstration comes as the Astoria School District is contemplating whether to ask voters for a bond to fund school improvements. Securing the high school, where more than 70 entrances around campus make controlling access a challenge, has emerged as one of the highest priorities.
The district hopes to add more enclosed walking corridors between the high school’s four main buildings to make sure students no longer have to go outside between classes.
In the wake of recent shootings, Seaside High School has tightened lockdown protocols and locked every door except the front entrance throughout the day. Preliminary designs for the new Seaside campus feature remotely locking doors and passageways.
While the shooting in Florida has galvanized calls to action over gun violence, research shows schools are safer than they were 20 years ago, according to James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology, law and public policy at Northeastern University in Boston. Four times the number of children were killed in schools in the early 1990s than today, Fox told the university’s newspaper.
“There is not an epidemic of school shootings,” he told the paper, adding that more kids are killed each year from pool drownings or bicycle accidents.
Some preventative measures such as restricting assault rifle purchases to people 21 and over and banning bump stocks can help, he said, adding, “the thing to remember is that these are extremely rare events, and no matter what you can come up with to prevent it, the shooter will have a workaround,”
Many of the preventative measures being taken in schools are focused around teacher training and identifying the warning signs of a potential school shooter. The focus is also on ways to support the emotional and mental health needs of students as a way to curb potential gun violence, Roberts said.
Security is a multipronged approach that includes partnerships with law enforcement, counseling and good relationships between students and staff, Jackson said. Astoria is a part of an anonymous statewide tip service for safety issues through Safe Oregon, a service the high school has used for one incident so far this year.
When student Peter Ansel Williams, then 16, threatened a shooting at Astoria High School in 2011, he was turned in by a friend, Warrenton High School student Kyle Benton, whom he had tried to recruit. Benton had previously attended Astoria and had formed a relationship with the administration, Jackson said.
“Having strong, inclusive, welcoming relationships between students and staff, those relationships are incredibly powerful as a preventative measure, not only in communication when a potential threat arises, but also in the prevention of such behaviors,” Jackson said.