Gun control, campus security, bullying and other issues were on the minds of students in Modesto, Turlock, Ceres and Riverbank on Wednesday morning when they joined in the Enough: National School Walkout. The 17-minute demonstrations for better gun control and safer schools took place in over 2,500 schools across America.
The students walked out of their classrooms at 10 a.m. in response to last month's massacre at a Florida high school, where a former student killed 17 people on campus. The length of the nationwide walkout represents a minute for each life lost.
Teens at high schools throughout Stanislaus County organized demonstrations, while school officials issued guidelines, support and warnings in response to the planned protests.
At Johansen High in east Modesto, between 200 and 250 students participated despite district officials earlier saying the absence would be considered unexcused. Principal Nathan Schar estimated that 20 percent of the student body took part. They used the five-minute passing period at 10 a.m. to walk to their gathering spot in front of the school, which is at Creekwood and Norseman drives, rather than the more publicly visible Claus Road.
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Johansen was the only Modesto City Schools campus to have a walkout event registered at ActionNetwork.org. The students stood mostly silent during the demonstration, and at one point formed a large circle. Afterward, a few talked about the messages they want heard.
"I feel like we actually have to make a change in our school" right away, said junior class President Alicia Lugo, who fears that might happen only if there's a shooting in Modesto. There are a lot of ways to enter her school, she said, and not enough campus supervisors to watch them all. Students and staff need better and more frequent drills on what to do in an emergency.
Overhearing her concern, Schar told her that staff was meeting later Wednesday on just that. "My job is to teach the teachers so they can teach you exactly what's going to happen. That's what today's staff meeting is all about."
Lugo said she's proud of her classmates who turned out Wednesday. "I know the students out here care and want to make a change."
Though there's a big focus on gun control, other changes are just as important, sophomore Karissa Stewart said. Like bullying and mental health.
The former student who gunned down the 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle clearly was troubled, Stewart said. "He was in pain, and people saw the signs," she said. "... We need to come together and be nicer to each other and not always put each other in pain and stop blaming everything on everything else, like security."
Bullying is so rampant at Johansen, Stewart said, that some students couldn't possibly have time to report each instance. "It would be constant."
Yvette Sanchez, a junior, added, "They do nothing about bullying. We tell them we get bullied and they don't do anything, they sit there and talk to those people but they don't suspend them. That's what makes me mad — they need to give consequences."
A few hundred students walked out of their classrooms at Ceres High School and gathered in the amphitheater near the center of campus.
One of the student organizers, Camille Vega, said some classmates were concerned they could become targets for someone wanting to do the demonstrators harm. The students agreed to hold the demonstration in the amphitheater instead of along the campus fence at Whitmore and Central avenues.
An increasing number of school shootings targeting students and campus staff have youths living in a constant state of fear. Vega said students are frustrated over the fear of going to school each day thinking it might be their last day alive.
"We don't want this kind of fear at our schools," Vega said after Wednesday's demonstration.
School officials did not allow The Modesto Bee on campus to photograph the student demonstration and a Ceres police officer stationed at the school said the sidewalk next to an iron fence around the school was in a school zone and not accessible to the public.
Vega said they had three students speak to those gathered in the amphitheater. She said the students there are tired of adults continuing to treat them like children, especially when they want their voices to be heard on an important issue like school gun violence.
She said organizers handed out about 150 voter registration forms to 18-year-old students already eligible to vote and pre-registration forms for students at least 16 years old asking the government to automatically register them to vote when they turn 18.
Vega, a 16-year-old junior at Ceres High, said young people need to register to vote for elected officials who want to enact laws for gun reform. The students at her school gathered peacefully and returned to their classrooms about 17 minutes after the demonstration began.
Students from Beyer, Enochs and Gregori high schools who spoke with The Bee last month were more focused on the National School Walkout planned for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting. But some said they were considering the planned March For Our Lives on Saturday, March 24, as a “pre-movement” that could include parents, teachers and community members.
The April 20 walkout would be a much longer demonstration: from 10 a.m. to the end of the school day. For that event, students at 11 Stanislaus County schools have registered: Gregori, Davis, Beyer, Downey, Modesto, Enochs, Central Valley, Oakdale, Turlock and Waterford high schools and Roosevelt Junior High.
Vega said it was unlikely that Ceres High students will join the April 20 walkout, because it would involve students leaving classes for most of the day. Ceres High administrators promised no discipline for Wednesday morning's walkout, but there are no assurances for students who leave campus on April 20.
Vega said she wouldn't leave campus on April 20, unless a large group of Ceres High students pledge to join the walkout and organize a student march and demonstration with a purpose that was much more than just an excuse to cut class.
Students at Pitman High in Turlock also demonstrated in their school quad, and Riverbank High students organized an assembly in the gymnasium.
Students at Modesto's Beyer High and Somerset Middle School also reported that dozens of students, at least, joined in the walkout, which was organized by Women’s March Youth Empower. "According to our estimates," said Modesto City Schools spokeswoman Becky Fortuna, "Johansen had the highest number of participants, followed by Davis and Downey."
A couple of schools had to address reports of threats, which were not found credible.