ILWACO — At 10 a.m. on Wednesday morning, dozens of local students walked out of their classes and helped make national history.
Across the United States, thousands of children and teenagers participated in peaceful, student-organized “walkouts” intended to bring attention to the issue of school shootings and to call for safer schools. The events were 17 minutes long — one minute for each student and teacher slain in the most recent school shooting, in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14. EMPOWER, a youth-oriented outreach program from the organizers of the national Women’s March, proposed the coordinated nationwide walkouts, but each event was organized independently by local students.
About half of the Ilwaco High School student body and several dozen middle school students from neighboring Hilltop School participated on the Peninsula. Students at other Pacific County schools reportedly staged walkouts, too.
In some U.S. schools, students carried signs, gave choir performances, set up empty desks or made other visual gestures to represent students who have been killed at school. At Hilltop, students gathered around the flagpole in front of the school. Some students carried handmade signs with messages like “Never again!”, “Government officials need to step up or step down!” and “Fear has no place in schools.” They stood in almost total silence for 17 minutes, then returned, more or less willingly, to class.
At the high school, students made their way to the bleachers, where they listened respectfully as senior Allyson Wagner, junior Casie Jewell and freshman Haley Fitzgerald read a short speech that urged students to show one another kindness and compassion, and called on adults to take swift, meaningful action to make schools safer.
When the speech was over, the students sat in silence until 10:17 a.m. Some bowed their heads, some leaned on friends. Waves of emotion — sadness for the Parkland students, fear for their own safety, a bit of defiance — washed over their faces. A few held signs. Student journalists discreetly snapped pictures. Nearly everyone took the event very seriously.
When it was over, the students made their way back to class.
In some school districts around the country, leaders refused to excuse students’ brief absences or made other attempts to squelch the protests. In Ocean Beach School District, however, school leaders did not participate, but worked with student organizers to ensure orderly, safe events.
“We recognize the event as a powerful moment of civic education and a good lesson in democracy,” Hilltop Principal Todd Carper wrote in a letter to parents. “While we will not encourage students to participate in the event, we recognize students’ right to peacefully demonstrate.”
Shortly before the event, high school Principal Dave Tobin made a quick survey of the campus to be sure all was in order. When the protest started, he watched, but kept a respectful distance from the proceedings. Wagner said she and her friends approached Tobin to discuss their plans early on, and spent about two weeks planning the event.
After the walkout, Wagner, Jewell and Fitzgerald said they were heartened by the large turnout. Initially, only about 17 students planned to participate. Some objected because they thought it was a call for stricter gun laws. But the girls won numerous converts with some skillful diplomacy. From the start, Wagner said, they recognized that guns are a part of the local culture, and discussion of gun laws would likely be divisive. Instead, they focused on expressing solidarity with students across the country and calling for stronger school safety measures.
“Kids here feel safe, and want to keep it safe,” Wagner said. “We are blessed with having an environment like this, but when you go to other schools that have mass shootings, they don’t have the type of safety and security we have.”
Luke Whittaker contributed to this breaking news report. An expanded version will be published later in the week.