Hundreds of Spokane students walked out of classes Friday to protest two decades of school gun violence that has left at least 130 dead and 255 injured across the country.
There were school shootings before 1999, but it was the Columbine massacre that year on April 20 that shocked the nation and has since left society paralyzed and divided about how to stop the ongoing wave of school violence.
High school students who weren’t born until after that notorious day are now pressing for changes.
“I believe this is the start, not the end,” said Alyssa Lizardo, a 17-year-old junior at Lewis and Clark High School.
More than 400 students from high schools around the region left their classes and either drove or hopped on public buses to The Gathering Place adjacent to Riverfront Park.
Aislynn Kenney, a Ferris High School junior, made a sign for the protest, a solemn list of deadly school shootings since 1999.
“It’s pretty sad,” she said of her sign. “It’s only the 10 with the highest death counts. There’s so many more.”
On average there have been 10 school shootings each year since Columbine. So far this year there have been 20 – the worst year on record. The figure includes a student wounded Friday at a high school in Ocala, Florida.
The shootings include everything from disputes at campus dorms, to accidental shootings in schools, to the slaughter in Parkland, Florida.
About 189,000 people who were or are students have been at a school during a shooting, according to an analysis published by the Washington Post.
Kai Koerber, a student-turned-political activist who lived through the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, spoke to the group about tightening regulations for people with a history of mental illness. Koerber has been visiting different cities to spread his message.
“We are here to hold the adults accountable,” he said. “Our generation will change the world.”
Koerber wants mental health screening for people who want to buy an assault rifle. He also wants a public safety tax on firearms for mental health care in school.
“Laws are changing and we are winning,” Koerber said to a standing ovation.
The events are beginning to echo the activism of 50 years ago, when protests against the Vietnam War erupted on campuses and streets across the county.
“I think these kids are pretty awesome,” said Mary Ann Bosky.
She recounted joining massive protest rallies in Washington D.C. that were a hallmark of the 1960s. She was in her 20s with a 2-year-old daughter on her hip.
“I thought it was important to show people who were young – with families – who were against the war,” she said. “It just all came about when people got tired of the war.
“And now this gun thing is just crazy. I don’t know why people think they should have assault weapons.”
Student counterprotesters appeared at both events.
Lewis and Clark sophomore Isaac Engle was one of six students counterprotesting at The Gathering Place. He said he’s more conservative than some of his classmates and doesn’t believe restricting gun rights is the best way to prevent school shootings.
“What we want to do is show there’s a diversity of opinion at LC,” he said.
He said schools should focus on improving mental health care, noting that many of his classmates struggle with depression. Students often don’t feel comfortable talking to counselors or find them hard to relate to, he said.
Engle and his classmates carried yellow Gadsden flags and held them behind the group of students protesting.
Students also left classes at 10 a.m. at Freeman High School for a gathering at the school’s football field.
About 100 students from Central Valley and University high schools in Spokane Valley converged at Terrace View Park.
Lewis and Clark High School senior Greta Grim said she’d like to see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research gun violence, a topic that Congress all but banned in 1996 by cutting existing research funding while prohibiting the agency from advocating or promoting gun control.
She said she’s also concerned about proposals to arm teachers, which she called a “terrible idea” that would confuse police responding to a school shooting.
“How do they know who’s the school shooter?” she said.
Colton Schons, a North Central student, read a list of Parkland school shooting victims and asked the crowd to repeat, “That could have been me” after each one.
Many students said the shooting last fall at Freeman High School spurred them to action.
“The only thing that stopped Freeman from being a mass shooting is the shooter’s gun jammed,” said Lewis and Clark junior Caroline Slater, one of the rally’s organizers.
Unable to use the AR-15 he’d brought to campus, the shooter instead used a pistol to wound three classmates and kill a fourth, Sam Strahan.
Slater and co-organizer Haley Morris, also a junior at Freeman, said the shooting shattered their sense that Spokane was a safe place where a shooting would never happen.
“We’re involved whether we want to be or not,” Morris said.
Other speakers included A.J. McKinney and Bethany Montgomery, founders of the Power 2 the Poetry group. Montgomery versed activist poetry while holding the hand of Ami Strahan, the mother of September’s school shooting victim, Sam Strahan.
Eight-year-old Caavy Garegnani sang a Johnny Cash song, “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” to the group.
“I’m out here because I’m going to go to high school someday, and I want to know that I’ll be safe. I want to know that a teacher won’t have a weapon,” she said. “This country is pretty ugly right now.”
A passerby to the event, David Mendez, said that he hopes these rallies head in the right direction, which is making schools safer, but an outright ban is shortsighted.
Mendez said he builds schools for a living and says they are safe enough. He has two adult children and Mendez said he never felt like they were in danger when they were in high school.
“The reality is that you’re actually quite safe” in schools, he said.
Story reported and written by John Stucke, Will Campbell and Rachel Alexander of The Spokesman-Review
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