Local Students Demand Action to Prevent Mass Shootings
By Gary Walker, Christina Campodonico and Joe Piasecki
The burgeoning student movement for the prevention of gun violence offers pundits and powerbrokers a few new stereotypes about teenagers: intelligent, motivated and capable.
On March 14, Westside middle and high school students turned out enthusiastically and in large numbers for the National School Walkout — a youth-led effort to both honor victims of the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and pressure elected leaders into revising the nation’s gun laws.
On Saturday, local students will again take to the streets for March for Our Lives Los Angeles, a sister demonstration in solidarity with a Washington D.C. march planned by Parkland shooting survivors.
“I’ve grown up seeing so many school shootings. I remember feeling that it’s awful and sad and horrible, but I also thought it was normal. When I saw these Parkland students saying ‘enough is enough,’ it inspired me. It dawned on me how complacent we’ve gotten about it,” said 19-year-old Santa Monica College student Jessica Flaum, one of many student organizers behind the L.A. demonstration.
March for Our Lives Los Angeles speakers are expected to call for gun safety measures including universal background checks, a ban on bump stock attachments and a ban on public sale of the military-style assault rifles commonly used by mass shooters, including the gunman who rampaged at Santa Monica College in June 2013.
“The core of this movement is we feel there are answers. Gun violence is preventable. These are our lives at stake,” said Flaum. “And it is a movement. It’s not just about these rallies. At the march we’re registering people to vote. It’s not going away.”
Students who walked out of class or led assemblies at Santa Monica, West L.A. and Culver City schools last week echoed Flaum’s clarity of purpose and resolve.
VENICE HIGH SCHOOL
At Venice High, 14 student organizers and three teachers placed 17 empty desks on the school’s front lawn — one for each person killed during the Parkland shooting. Each read a victim’s name and placed a flower on a desk.
April Cuarenta, a senior, spoke for Parkland junior Helena Ramsay, who was shot to death while trying to protect a classmate.
“I tried to put myself in her shoes. I really look up to her,” Cuarenta said. “I felt this deep connection to her not only because we’re both 17, but because she was so selfless.”
Mya Gates, who spoke for 14-year-old Parkland victim Gina Montalto, took heart to see hundreds at her school join the walkout and take it seriously.
“This really made me feel like I can be an important part of this community,” said Gates, also a senior.
“It was very empowering and it gave me a sense of hope,” added Cuarenta.
NEW ROADS SCHOOL
More than 400 students walked out of the Santa Monica private school, accompanied by staff as they marched along the Olympic Boulevard median from Berkley Street to Nebraska Avenue, chanting and waving colorful signs in clear support of gun law reform. Passing motorists honked horns in support, and workers at some of the businesses along the route cheered or even joined the march.
They paused at 10 a.m. for a moment of silence and returned to school shortly before 11 a.m.
“I’m sick and tired of hearing about students just like me going through this. That could have been me,” student organizer Chyna Ellis, a senior, said of Parkland. “How many times do these shootings have to happen for [adults] to take some kind of action?”
“I feel like until some form of gun control legislation gets passed everyone’s education is in jeopardy,” said student organizer Fleurette Modica, also a senior. “We want to keep this at the forefront of everyone’s mind.”
Modica said her classmates tend to feel this is a seminal moment for their generation.
“Youth have always had an incredible power in social movements. We have to remember that if our voices are loud enough people will listen,” she said. “We’re disgusted. It’s horrifying that kids are getting shot, and for me what’s even more horrifying is not doing anything about it.”
Head of School Luthern Williams said New Roads faculty and administrators were very supportive of the students’ desire to participate in the National School Walkout.
“Embedded in our philosophy is developing the tools for social morals and political participation, and you can’t do that with textbooks. You have to do that by doing it,” Williams said.
SANTA MONICA PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Samohi student organizers opted to hold a 17-minute demonstration on the campus football field, reading short biographies of each Parkland victim and leading schoolwide chants such as “Never Again,” “Enough is Enough” and “We Stand with Parkland against Guns.”
“This is not and should not be a partisan issue. No one left class at 10 a.m. as a Democrat or Republican or conservative or liberal. We left because we’re scared. Because every day we go to school we know something could happen,” said Will Sherman, one of about two dozen Samohi student organizers.
“During school assemblies we look for escape routes. When a door opens quickly during class, we all turn our heads,” continued Sherman, founder of a new activism club on campus and president elect of the Santa Monica YMCA’s youth in government program. “We got over 1,000 kids on that field to stand up for something that affects all of us, because it’s not just the state or country but the world that’s watching.”
Santa Monica middle and elementary school students participated in staff- and parent-supported assemblies. Students at John Adams Middle School gathered on the lawn to read short biographies of each Parkland victim, some of them carrying signs such as “How Many is Enough?” and “Books Not Bullets.” Students at Webster Elementary School gathered on their sports field in formation as a peace sign.
OPEN CHARTER MAGNET SCHOOL
School administrators facilitated a voluntary student meeting in the school’s “Respect” handball court to discuss their feelings about school shootings, said magnet coordinator Peggy Lew.
“Some of our third and fourth graders made very powerful statements about their concerns about gun violence,” Lew said. “Others talked about more personal stories, like the kind of violence they have seen on their streets. It was very important that they were allowed to voice their concerns.”
Fifth-graders held classroom discussions about the history and impact of protest.
ST. BERNARD HIGH SCHOOL
Students at the Catholic high school in Playa del Rey gathered for a post-midterms prayer vigil in their gymnasium, lighting candles for those killed by gun violence after a slideshow in memory of the 17 Parkland victims, said Shireen Ossanlo, the school’s director of development.
“We did have one student who felt very passionate about walking out at 10 a.m. She walked out to the Mary garden and sat in silence for 17 minutes. We were very supportive and admired her courage to do what she felt she needed to,” Ossanlo said.
WISH CHARTER MIDDLE SCHOOL
At 10 a.m., students carried handmade signs to the blacktop, where Principal Chelsie Murphy led a moment of silence for those killed in the Florida shooting. Students delivered prepared speeches on topics that included the importance of school safety and speaking out to keep campuses safe.
The event culminated with students gathering in the shape of a peace sign and offering three cheers of “peace.”
CULVER CITY PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Culver City High School seniors Carolyn Dodenhoff and Cecilia Ribordy were already planning a gun control demonstration when news broke March 1 that a classmate had been arrested for making a shooting threat, and that authorities had confiscated a gun in the student’s home.
“It made us realize, like, ‘Wow, this is something that touches all of us,’” said Dodenhoff.
“Really the threat just comes to show that we are not any safer than anyone else,” added Ribordy.
They began working with their school, Culver City Middle School, city officials and local police to organize a safe but still student-driven display of activism.
And while dozens of parents wearing orange shirts emblazoned with the hashtag “Enough” greeted students on the football field Wednesday morning, their participation was more supportive, than helicopter-y.
“We’re here to show the kids that we’re behind them,” said Culver City High School parent Dermot Wall, on his way to the field. “They’ve organized this. But they’re not alone. We’re here to help.”
“It was all student-organized,” Assistant Principal Kelli Taryvd said. “I just did the administration.”
Youth voices definitely did take center stage when high school and middle school students flooded the football field between the two campuses around 10 a.m., waving handmade protest signs and walking to the beat of the high school’s drumline.
“Enough is enough” chanted students as they gathered around a stage at the center of the field — 17 empty chairs, representing the 17 killed in the Parkland massacre, bordering one side of the stage.
Over the next hour, 10 students from the two schools gave impassioned speeches to the energized crowd, leveling criticism at the NRA, Congress and President Donald Trump, as well as calling for gun reform.
“As guns change, the law must change again,” said junior Liam Wall, Dermot Wall’s son. “There are those that say ‘Make America Great Again,’ I say it is time to make schools safe again. … [We need] gun legislation that puts Americans first, not the NRA.”
“The right to bear arms does not mean the right to break hearts,” added middle schooler Alba Navas.
High school teen Aliah Fabros also stirred the crowd with a passionate poem capturing the zeitgeist of this cultural moment: “… Lately our lungs have been burning for air / As our banners shout for what is fair / Schools are not your target / Students should not know what it’s like to be painted scarlet.”
Throughout their orations, student speakers not only voiced their outrage at the powers that be, but also reminded their peers — some as young as 11 or 12 — of the political power they hold.
“We’ll cause a ripple of justice so large it will be too big for the textbooks. It is time for a revolution and we are the revolution,” said high schooler Ciara Page, who had painted an orange ribbon of solidarity for Parkland shooting victims on her cheek. “We’ll never be silenced.”
“The fact that this movement today is led by kids — kids my kids’ age — it’s a moment of anger and hope mixed together,” said Culver City Councilwoman Meghan Sahli-Wells. “Having teenagers myself, they have a great B.S. meter. They know when adults are just trying to pat them on the heads and tell them to go play. They ain’t playing.”
March for Our Lives Los Angeles is on Saturday, March 24. There will be a rally at 9 a.m. at Pershing Square, followed by a march that culminates in a second rally at Grand Park, next to L.A. City Hall.