Students at several Ashland schools joined those in schools across the country in walking out of classrooms at 10 a.m. Wednesday to honor victims of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, one month ago, by taking 17 minutes, one minute for each victim, to stand in solidarity with what the Associated Press is calling “one of the biggest student protests since the Vietnam era.”
There have been more than 300 school shootings in America since 2013, averaging one per week, according to an article by Every Town, a gun safety resource, including the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Students at Ashland high and middle schools, the Siskiyou School and Southern Oregon University participated.
At the high school, a handful of community members bearing signs and a couple of policemen flanked the students as they funneled into the gym.
A handful of students and teachers stood side-by-side in front of the school body. They took turns reading aloud the name and age of each victim, and a description of their character.
The event was entirely student-run, according to two seniors who took it upon themselves to organize it, Emily Belcastro and Aanisah Clark. Students and staff members read poetry and spoke about mental health, campus safety and solidarity.
“We should be focused on learning and making the world a better place, but instead we have to be cautious about our lives,” Belcastro said. “And I think it’s important to show government, and the people that hold that power, that … we’re not just going to roll over.”
Belcastro said students have heard feedback from the older generations in Ashland who believe students shouldn’t be involved in politics.
“I agree … but what other choice do we have, because no one else is going to do it, and I do believe that the young voice should be in government,” Belcastro said. “When a lot of those people were in their really fancy houses, we were hiding under our desks, so we need to hear the young people’s voices because we are the people who are experiencing it and we’re the generation that needs to fix it.”
The Rev. Tom Buechele, associate priest at Trinity Episcopal Church, stood outside the gym with members of the church. He said that some of the women were former teachers and grandmothers of the children inside.
“I think the idea of the older generation standing in solidarity and support of the younger generation is important,” Buechele said.
While some schools around the nation threatened punishment if students walked out, according to an AP article, schools and organizations in Ashland fully stood behind their students, and even encouraged them to participate.
“We’re so lucky to have a principal, Erika Bare, who’s so supportive of the student voice,” Belcastro said. “All we had to do was let them know that this was important and the minute we did, they helped us make it happen.”
Clark said that the event was intended to honor the victims of the shooting and a decision was made it not be open to the public, but another walkout is in the planning process for April 20. AHS students and possibly students at other Ashland schools plan to walk together to the Plaza in protest of gun violence. Clark, Belcastro and other student leaders will speak at the event.
“This is something that we feel very strongly and deeply about,” Clark said. “This is not because we want to dismiss class or skip school, this is because we feel that this is something that we need to actively take part of and make a change about.”
Ashland police were stationed at the Ashland middle and high school campuses during the event as a precaution after a caller to the department reported the use of the phrase “air gun” in casual conversation on either the middle or high school campus, Lt. Hector Meletich said.
The Siskiyou School took a different approach to their event, administrator Aurelia McNamara said.
“We tried to do something different than protesting, we wanted to look more at the healing process,” McNamara said.
Kelly Shelstad, eighth-grade teacher, said student discussions tried to determine what the root cause of these tragedies are, including why people feel so lonely in today’s world.
“This time that we’re living in is different than any other time we can remember because it’s the students’ voices that are being heard in this movement that’s happening across the country,” Shelstad said. “As a school, our intention was to honor the lives lost while putting our energy towards creating the world we want to see.”
She said groups of eighth-graders felt loneliness brought about by an overload of technology and feeling disconnected from one another was an underlying cause. They sought out solutions and spent their 17 minutes drawing mandalas in the school yard.
Oregon Shakespeare Festival company members gathered in Ashland and Talent to speak the names of the victims, according to a statement released by the Festival.
“As an arts organization with a social justice mission, and an organization that serves over 60,000 students annually on our campus and in their schools, we are proud to support our company members in expressing that gun violence is a social justice issue and that we all should be able to feel safe, peaceful, and without fear in our workplaces, in our schools, and in our community,” the statement said.
Community members are invited to join a "March for Our Lives" from the Jackson County clerk’s office in Medford to Spiegelberg Stadium with students for “common sense gun reform” from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, March 24. For more information visit, the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/events/181642442452828/.
Lindsey Rocha, SOU director of student advocacy, said she’s involved with many student advocacy and government groups on campus.
“One thing I’ve learned is that grassroots organizing is really important especially when you’re combating against a lot of money to get your voice heard,” Rocha said. “People power is very powerful.”
—Contact Ashland freelance writer Caitlin Fowlkes at Caitlin.firstname.lastname@example.org.