Following another round of student walkouts Friday morning, student-activists took center stage at an afternoon gathering of the Washington Education Association, the state’s biggest teachers union, in Spokane’s Riverfront Park.
More than 1,000 people, mostly public school teachers and support staff clad in orange T-shirts, lined the seats of the amphitheater outside the INB Performing Arts Center while students from Lewis and Clark, Cheney and Shadle Park high schools gave speeches and led chants from the floating stage on the Spokane River.
The topic, again, was the plague of gun violence and mass shootings that has left millions of American students wondering if their schools will be targeted next.
A student survivor of the Parkland, Florida, shooting anchored the rally’s public speaking with an impassioned speech of his own.
Kai Koerber, a junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, made the cross-country trip to speak to a city that experienced a school shooting of its own at Freeman High School last year.
Under sunny skies, Koerber spoke from a dock on the Spokane River about his experience on Feb. 14 and the change he wants to see.
The sizable crowd he saw Friday thousands of miles from Parkland was encouraging, he said.
“It’s definitely very moving and inspirational,” Koerber told The Spokesman-Review. “Every time I attend or hear about these rallies, I am just reminded of the fact that this is something that reaches from one side of the country to the other, and one side of the planet to the other. It absolutely astonishes me.”
Koerber, an advanced placement student, said he was in a music class 50 feet from the where the shootings occurred. A natural speaker with a crisp and powerful delivery for someone age 17, Koerber was asked to speak in Spokane a month ago.
“You could hear the shots and you’re just hoping it’s not real and nothing serious,” said Koerber, who made his first visit to the Northwest. “But at the end of the day, I think we’ve turned our tragedy into triumph.”
WEA President Kim Mead let students like Koerber know that their voices are being heard among educators.
“We’re out here to make sure that we’re having the voices of students heard, and we’re supporting our kids, and we’re excited about the fact that they’ve been putting things together across our nation,” Mead said.
“We want to hear from students,” she added. “We hear ourselves all the time.”
Mead said the teachers union, which is holding its annual convention in Spokane, paid for Koerber and his mother to visit Spokane and speak at the rally. Koerber is one of many Parkland students who have led a wave of youth activism demanding safer schools through more stringent gun regulations.
“A lot of people tell us, as students, that we don’t have the right or ability to be doing what we are doing because we are too young or uneducated. But that’s wrong,” Audrey Bellmer, a sophomore at Cheney High, said in a speech. “We want them to look to the books because there’s evidence against that.”
Referring to opposition from the powerful gun lobby, Shadle Park student Devon Maxfield said the youth movement ought to be taken seriously.
“If we weren’t thought of as a powerful group of reformers,” she said, “there would be no reason to fight against us.”
The crowd of teachers also heard impassioned speeches by fellow educators, including Mike Allen, a gym teacher at Freeman Elementary School and president of the Freeman Education Association, the local branch of the WEA.
Brad Read, an English teacher at Shadle Park High, said in a speech that he’s “proud to be led by students into the sensible and humane future they demand.”
“They’ve had enough avoiding the real issues that students face,” Read said. “They’ve had enough stalling in the face of fear and horror. They’ve had enough of the empty promises mixed with ‘thoughts and prayers.’”