"No more silence, end gun violence!" rang off the walls outside Enochs High School in northeast Modesto on Friday.
Students exercised their free-speech rights — probably to the point of scratchy throats — during the National School Walkout to call for gun control and other safety measures. The date marked the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre.
The 100 or so students who turned out exercised their bodies, too, as they yelled chants while briskly marching around the perimeter of their campus buildings. On Sylvan Avenue, the kids got several honks from passing motorists, then shouts of support from classmates out in P.E. classes and on the tennis courts at the rear and side of the campus.
About 2 miles west on Sylvan, Beyer High students held a smaller (about three dozen youth), quieter gathering, standing in a circle in front of the school office.
On social media, "a lot of adults have a lot to say about the students that want to have their voices heard," Beyer Associated Student Body President Sarah Diryawush told her classmates. "... We'll show that we do have voices and we will be heard."
Referring to the March For Our Lives gathering last month in Modesto's Graceada Park, she added, "We planned a whole march downtown with 700 people. I think that's a pretty big deal for, what, 12 high-schoolers meeting up and making a change."
Junior Faith Miller spoke to the group about the need for students to build one another up, not tear down through bullying and exclusion. Afterward, she said, "A lot of students don't realize what we're walking out for, and a lot of the issues really do come from people being bullied and not accepted by different groups. ... A lot of the shooters were bullied, made fun of, especially on social media. We need to stop that to make a bigger change in the long run."
Student organizers at Beyer, Enochs and Gregori worked for months on the walkout, which initially was planned to be from 10 a.m. to the last bell of the school day, though staying on campus.
Friday morning, Beyer student leaders chose to cut their demonstration to 17 minutes. That's a minute for each life lost in the nation's latest campus mass shooting, which claimed 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14. They decided that leaving class for the bulk of the day "would not get our message out as we wanted to," Diryawush said. Neither did they want to be loud and disruptive to the majority of students who remained in class.
Principal Dan Park said he is proud of Beyer students for always being interested in doing what is right for their community. In the walkout, "they conducted themselves in a very correct way today and handled themselves very admirably and made their point without being disruptive."
About 30 to 40 Gregori students also cut their demonstration short, staging a brief walkout before going into a classroom to share their concerns with a few district and school staff representatives and Modesto City Schools Board of Education member Steven Grenbeaux. The district announced earlier this week that school board members and/or district staff would be on each high school and junior high campus during the lunch period Friday to meet with students.
Enochs students also planned to meet with a board member during lunch, but then return to their demonstration for the rest of the school day. A few said they knew they'd be marked truant but the consequence was worth getting their voices heard. "When it comes to a topic like this, there is gonna be punishment and civil disobedience, but it's what we need to do," student organizer Simon Carmona said.
A couple of the chants by the students as they circled their campus called out the National Rifle Association: "Hey, hey, hey, NRA. How many students did you kill today?" and "Hey, hey, no, no, the NRA has got to go." At other times, they yelled "We're students united, we'll never be divided" and the call-and-response "What do we want? Gun control! When do we want it? Now!"
Enochs student organizer Isabel Garcia said she planned to speak with the school board member visiting her campus Friday. She'd share with the trustee that students need more and better drills on what to do if a gunman was on campus. "I don't know how to be prepared for a school shooting," she said.
Junior Malea Lewis, who used a bullhorn to help lead chants during the protest, said she turned out because "I'm really tired of fearing for my life in schools and other environments where I should feel safe and I wanna make a change."
What changes would she like to see? "I think that stricter guns laws can be more effective, deeper background checks." It's far too easy to buy guns, she said, especially at gun shows, "and I think it's absolutely ridiculous."