While middle- and high school students across the country walked out of class in support of stricter gun control laws, over 700 Bonita High School students chose to use Wednesday’s nationwide event to memorialize the victims of school shootings.
The demonstration took place at 10 a.m. Wednesday, on school grounds, and was part of a nationwide effort largely organized by Women’s March Youth Empower, an organization that encourages political change in communities and creates toolkits for event organizers.
The event marks the one-month anniversary since 17 students were killed during an attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
In honor of those 17 victims, students nationwide took part in the peaceful protests that lasted a total of 17 minutes, holding signs that read “Better Together,” “United We Stand” and “Never Again.”
Olivia Brock, senior at Bonita High, was one of the key organizers of her school’s event.
“Leading up to the march I was really nervous, because I knew not a lot of people in my class were participating,” Brock said. “That made me nervous to get up at first, but right when the clock hit 10, I stood up abruptly and noticeably. I did not try to sneak out, I stood up and walked out. I did not hesitate or look back.”
Janelle Smith, senior at Bonita, said the overall purpose of the march was to commemorate the lives lost in Parkland and not specifically for gun control.
“We wanted it to be an inclusive event and represent unity rather than separation,” Smith said. “Without including a specific political stance, we were able to come together more and it became a respected situation and less of an aggressive one.”
Part of the demonstration was a spoken word poem presented by both Smith and classmate Sam Holden.
“No human life should be lost in a situation like this,” Holden said in the poem. “We talked about how silence is compliance and how it is not about your political stance, age, race- it is about coming together. In the end we all bleed the same.”
Filza Vaid, Bonita High junior, was part of the team who planned the walkout.
“We heard about the march through social media,” Vaid said. “We wanted something to happen at our school, but nothing really happened, so we took the initiative to start planning.”
Amarra Olado, Bonita High senior, said all students remained peaceful, regardless of their engagement in the march.
“There were swarms of people coming together,” Olado said. “Everyone was respectful and remained silent while listening to the speeches. Those who didn’t participate still respected us going out, just as we respected them staying in. It was peaceful.”
Noah Lee, senior Bonita High student, ended the 17 minute march remembering the lives lost in Parkland and encouraging students to act.
“I encouraged the seniors to register to vote and participate in democracy,” Lee said. “And for the underclassmen that were not able to vote, I encouraged them to participate in peaceful protests, boycotts and marches to make sure their voice is heard.”
School administrators, who are obligated by California law to stay neutral during the march, asked the students to organize the event without using any school resources.
“I think the district wanted the students to have an opportunity to be heard in a safe and productive manner,” said Carl Coles, interim superintendent of Bonita School Unified School District. “They were very peaceful and thoughtful in expressing their voice.”
Kenny Ritchie, principal at Bonita High School, led a school-wide moment of silence at 9:59 a.m., one minute before the student march was scheduled to begin.
In an email sent to Bonita High School students and their families, Coles said, “Participating students who walk out of class peacefully, remain on campus, and promptly return to class at 10:17 a.m. will not be penalized.”
Students were not forced to participate in the march and were free to remain in their classes per their usual schedule.
Administrators worked with student leaders to designate a safe area on campus to conduct the march and additional staff were stationed there to ensure the safety of students as they demonstrated their First Amendment rights.
“We are proud of our students for demonstrating in a peaceful and respectful manner,” James Ellis, principal of Ramona Middle School, said in an email to parents. “This was an excellent lesson in civic responsibility and engagement for our students.”
Ellis also encouraged parents to use this as an opportunity to discuss “family values” and the “why” of this march.
“Often times, it is hard for families to start conversations with their children about social issues,” Ellis said in the same email. “Today’s event on campus is an opportunity to have a conversation starter.”
Danae Hollar, senior, believes that the demonstration needs to be a turning point in the conversation around school shootings.
“Whether you are Republican or Democrat, whatever change you think needs to be made, needs to be made,” Hollar said. “No one can argue a life, no one can argue against someone’s right to live.”
While student organizers of the march at Bonita High School focused on inclusivity, the nationwide protest has largely been focused on the topic of gun control.
The Women’s March Youth Empower, the group largely responsible for organizing the walkouts nationally, lists a variety of policy priorities on its website, including banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines, expanding background checks and stopping the militarization of law enforcement.
“We are the ones going to school and we do not know if we are going to be next,” Bonita High senior Sierra Julian said. “Our voices need to be heard and people need to know that we have the power to make the change and that our generation is the future.”
Layla Abbas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christian Shepherd can be reached at email@example.com.