Our Experience as Student Activists

This article was a collaboration between Annika Mayne and Kaley Seeburger, two student activists and journalists who played large roles in the organization of the March 14 walkout. Below, they reflect on their experiences.

Franklin students write messages to the survivors of the Parkland shooting. On March 14, students countrywide held walkouts to show support.

Part I: March 14

At 10 a.m. on March 14, students across the nation stood up, walked out of their classrooms, and joined each other in an act of solidarity, of frustration, of grief. The walkout came in the wake of the most recent school shooting in honor of the 17 people who could not be there, to recognize that they were more than bodies or martyrs. Concerned students are collectively pushing for change; events across the country varied from protests, to marches, to moments of silence. At Glencoe and Atkinson, elementary children stood in the formation of a peace sign; at Robert Gray Middle School, students spelled out the word “SAFE” on the field; and at Franklin, students met outside the front of the building, shared hopes for the future, and wrote letters to survivors.

After reading the name of each victim, there was a moment of silence. After this minute, a survivor was quoted. This combination embodied the necessity of both honoring victims and disrupting the silence that surrounds gun violence. From parents offering food and babies holding signs, to teachers and administrators standing in support, there seemed to be a mutual understanding that this moment transcended politics. Regardless of political affiliation, the hundreds of students who participated highlighted a powerful truth—student voices are and always have been important. As a student body, we can have a voice.

Two students join their peers in the walkout to stand in solidarity with the Stoneman Douglas victims and survivors. Photo by Sydney George.

Part II: Youth as a Voice of Power and Reason

Although civil action has defined much of recent history, student activism is often left out of important movements, decision making, and mass media coverage. Unable to vote and characterized as shallow or immature, youth are excluded from many legislative decisions across the country. However, in the wake of the Parkland shooting on February 14 in Florida, student voices are finally getting the recognition that they deserve. Powerfully spoken by Emma Gonzalez, student activist and survivor of the Parkland shooting, “Maybe the adults have gotten used to saying ‘it is what it is,’ but if us students have learned anything, it’s that if you don’t study, you will fail. And in this case if you actively do nothing, people continually end up dead, so it’s time to start doing something.”

“Every single person up here today, all these people should be home grieving,” Gonzalez declared in her speech delivered to hundreds of people on February 17, just three days after the school shooting took place. “But instead we are up here standing together because if all our government and President can do is send thoughts and prayers, then it’s time for victims to be the change that we need to see.”

Gonzalez also described the “caricatures” that teenagers are painted as: “self-involved and trend-obsessed.” The image that comes up is all too familiar: kids that are glued to their phones and social media rather than interacting with the world around them. However, Gonzalez and fellow activists have proven that this stereotype is detached from reality; students have powerful voices and, when given an outlet, can push for real change.

On March 9, historically pro-gun Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a bill that would officially extend the waiting period to three days after purchasing a gun, ban bump stocks, and raise the minimum age of purchase to 21, going against the Republican norm of strong pro-gun policies. According to CNN, 307 out of the 535 members of Congress receive political money from the National Rifle Association (NRA), and according to CBS News, nearly 90 percent of all Americans support universal background checks. There’s a discrepancy there. Because of the money they choose to receive, nearly 60 percent of Congress speaks on behalf of the NRA, therefore supporting limited or nonexistent gun control; these politicians are making a clear statement that they value money and re-election over their young constituents’ lives. Greed and lust for power have become hallmarks of the American political system, exemplified by support for the Second Amendment under modern scrutiny.

“We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks,” Gonzalez continued. “Not because we’re going to be another statistic about mass shooting in America, but because…we are going to be the last mass shooting.” Written on the back of her AP Government notes, Gonzalez delivered a speech that, along with the efforts of her fellow students, might just change the course of American history. Gun violence disproportionately affects people of color, and many students fighting for their rights and political change have been left out of the narrative. The hope is that this movement will give all communities a voice.

Students walk out of school on March 14 to honor victims of the most recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Some chose to display signs with slogans from the movement or political opinions. Photo by Elizabeth Kirsch.

Part III: Embracing Uncomfortable Conversations

It can be difficult to find a proper balance when working with school administrators on political action. Before the November 2016 student walkout, district officials and ASB worked together to disband the protest, attempting to cancel an event they had not planned in the first place. When we began planning March 14 and April 20, we were apprehensive about approaching administration and Leadership. Too often, students must be part of a club or organization to be taken seriously, so it crossed our minds that it may not be worth it to speak with administration at all. However, Principal Juanita Valder had been requesting to meet with the planners of March 14, so we agreed to speak with her. Although meeting with administration is courteous and helps them prepare and support students, it is not necessary. Providing information can help administration plan for the safety of students, but it also runs the risk of inviting adult voices to control the conversation. There is no obligation to tell your school or district your plans, and they cannot legally stop you from carrying them out as long as they are safe and peaceful. So when we went to meet with the administrative team, we were confident that they would not have the ability to discredit or cancel our plans.

After the first meeting with administration, we attended a PTSA meeting, where a PPS School Resource Officer urged parents to take hold of their kids’ passwords and go through their texts and social media posts on a regular basis as a way to prevent cyberbullying or feelings of “isolation.” His argument may not be ill-intentioned, but it follows the narrative of shooters as mere victims to their peers—misunderstood and bullied by the same people they later open fire on. Even if one ignores the fact that many of these men, including the Parkland shooter, perpetrated violence and harassment to their classmates long before the shooting, this rhetoric is victim-blaming and undermines the much larger issues at play: racism, white supremacy, toxic masculinity, and the refusal to listen to students. The generalization of teenagers’ use of cell phones and social media as useless or inherently harmful is not new, especially from PPS or Franklin. For instance, days after the Parkland shooting, Franklin administrators came over the loudspeaker and spoke about the phone policy instead of addressing school safety or unity. This portrays a misunderstanding of teen culture and the unification social media can provide—it was through Snapchat that a Parkland student captured the terrifying moment of lying on the ground while gunshots echoed through the halls; it was through Twitter that Parkland survivors were able to challenge legislators; it is through Twitter, Instagram and Facebook that we have shared the GoFundMe for the April 20 student walkout.

Whether through social media or in person, students are talking. Emily Cornejo (11) asks “What has the administration done? They haven’t even brought up Parkland. It just feels like the authority figures, both on the school board and government are trying to move on—like they do with any shooting—and ignore what really needs to happen.” As Jillian Dixon (10) describes, “the amount of glass [at Franklin] and the fact that there aren’t many discrete exits really concerns me and almost makes me feel trapped.”

Valder holds a different perspective. “If I’m aware of what’s happening outside the window, and I can see somebody [a shooter], it’s preventative; you’re not gonna do something goofy. If you’ve got a wall between you, you don’t know what’s happening on the other side,” she says. “I would rather have a building built that is making a community support one another and live with the ability to see what is happening versus living in a building where I feel that everybody is sheltered and separated and in fear.”

However, especially in light of recent events, including a gun being brought to school, there is an undeniable climate of anxiety and uncertainty. Student activist Mya Andersen (12) says that she only has information on what to do during a school shooting from her peers, not school officials. Valder hopes to find “what it is that will make [school shooter] fear palatable. Because it won’t go away, that’s just the reality.”

We may not be able to erase this fear, but ignoring or suppressing it only fosters division. Students are afraid. And students are talking about it. Whether adults are going to be a part of this dialogue is ultimately up to them. While we are grateful that Franklin administration eventually respected our need to retain control over the walkout, we had to fight for it. Students and adults should be participating in this discourse on a regular basis. We need to open up the discussion, through various outlets, such as the Q&A and more training, but also by actively resisting the instinct to avoid uncomfortable conversations.

Part IV: Going Forward

On Friday, April 20, students across PPS will walk out of school at 9:15 a.m. and arrive at Pure Space PDX at 11:00 a.m. (1315 NW Overton St, Portland, OR 97209). There will be a training from speakers about effective student activism and ways to create legislative change, as well as a platform for other students to speak and participate in activities that will advance skill sets as an activist. This event is entirely student led and organized, and not sanctioned by the district. Choosing to participate is an act of civil disobedience and runs the risks of such; see “Exploring Student Rights and Free Speech” on front page. If there are any questions, please email ppsstudentactivism@gmail.com or DM @pdxstudentactivism on Instagram.

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