On Denver’s west side, school walkouts are for more than just school shootings

Ilene Orgaz leads chants as students from KIPP Denver Collegiate High School walk out of class as part of a national protest against gun violence, March 14, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

On Wednesday morning, in sync with schools all over the country, Denver students walked out of class to protest nationwide gun violence. But the message from those who walked out from the city’s west side schools took a different tone than perhaps was heard on the national stage.

As they marched and chanted in English and Spanish along Federal Boulevard, students from Denver’s historically Latino neighborhoods expressed that gun violence is something they’ve had to deal with disproportionally for years.

Nationally, solutions for tighter gun control have been proposed alongside measures to beef up school security or arm teachers. On Wednesday the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill appropriating money for school improvements that could be used for security infrastructure. And for communities of color who have long had fraught relationships with the police, proposals for increased security has not brought much comfort.

Ilene Orgaz, a 16-year-old junior at KIPP Denver Collegiate High School in Vaverde, led about 100 of her classmates to the corner of Federal and Alameda for a “die-in.” As she walked, she told Denverite that she’s “passionate” about the gun control debate, particularly as it relates to increased security at school.

“As a person of color, I feel like we already have a lot of police in our schools,” she said. “We don’t need to be more criminalized than we already are.”

A student named Max lies with a Mexican and American flag during the “die-in.” (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Adding to longstanding skepticism of police is fear of deportation, which has been stoked recently as immigration policy has unraveled in Washington. Congress has still yet to address expiring status for people who were formerly legally in the country under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or Temporary Protected Status.

“Increasing police presence will make it more possible for people of color to be criminalized or deported,” said Maxx Yanez, an 18-year-old KIPP senior. “Safety looks different for us than compared to students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.”

Maxx Yanez addresses the crowd. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

And yet, fears of too much protection coexists with an understanding for these students that gun violence has long been a problem on the west side.

“We’re not just worried about school shootings, we’re worried about being shot down the block, and if you’re like me, you grew up around gun violence,” said Mateo Manuel Vela, a senior at STRIVE Prep SMART Academy, who’s group coalesced with Orgaz’s at the die-in before heading north to Barnum Park. “We found it was really important for us to show out for this issue and show our side of it.”

Ian Broderick (counterclockwise), Jake Wunsh and Mateo Manuel Vela lie during the “die-in.” (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

A Valverde resident watches as students from KIPP Denver Collegiate High School walk out of class. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Lee Kucic on the ground during a “die-in.” (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
KIPP Denver Collegiate High School students. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Students load into buses after the walkout and rally ended. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)