‘Really scared and extremely angry’: Why Colorado students are walking out of school Wednesday

They want this time to be different.

From left, Emanuel Lamboy, Jackie Estrada Hernandez, and Elena Skaro, eighth-graders at Grant Beacon Middle School. (Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat)
From left, Emanuel Lamboy, Jackie Estrada Hernandez, and Elena Skaro, eighth-graders at Grant Beacon Middle School. (Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat)
From left, Emanuel Lamboy, Jackie Estrada Hernandez, and Elena Skaro, eighth-graders at Grant Beacon Middle School. (Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat)

By Erica Meltzer , Ann Schimke , Melanie Asmar and Yesenia RoblesChalkbeat

They want this time to be different.

Whether they’re walking out of school on Wednesday to call for new gun laws or whether they’re “walking in” to broader community conversations about violence, Colorado students told Chalkbeat they want the 17 lives lost a month ago in Florida to serve as an impetus for changes that have proven elusive for years.

Students at dozens of schools around Colorado are planning to walk out at 10 a.m. Wednesday, part of a national action to commemorate the victims of the shooting in Parkland, Florida. EMPOWER, the youth branch of the Women’s March, has recorded more than 2,500 planned walkouts around the country.

The issue of mass shootings has a terrible resonance in Colorado, where the murder of 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in 1999 shaped a generation. Last year, that attack fell off the list of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in modern American history.

Colorado has been the site of two other school shootings that quickly passed from national awareness: the 2006 Platte Canyon High School hostage crisis, in which Emily Keyes was killed, and the 2013 Arapahoe High School shooting, in which Claire Davis was killed.

Students in the Denver metro area also have a history of political activism. They’ve walked out in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, and in support of classmates and teachers affected by President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. Unlike in other parts of the country, many, though not all, school leaders here support and facilitate these walkouts, rather than threaten students with punishment.

At the same time, some students have chosen other ways to respond that they find more meaningful than walking out of school.

Here’s what these Colorado students had to say about why they’re doing what they’re doing:

“I was terrified of going to high school because I had heard of Columbine.”

Mariah Clute, a junior at Grandview High School in the Cherry Creek School District, was upset and worried after the shooting in Parkland. People with unstable minds know schools are easy targets, she said. It’s a feeling she’s lived with since middle school.

Back then, she said, “I was terrified of going to high school because I had heard of Columbine.”

Mariah Clute, a junior at Grandview High School in the Cherry Creek School District.

Clute, 17, plans to participate in Wednesday’s walkout because she wants to see real changes that make schools safer.

“I feel like even though this movement is getting pretty big, I think it will get even more attention as people show that they’re serious and they care about it.”

While Clute acknowledges that gun control is a “political minefield,” she said she’d like to see a return to an Obama-era rule that prevented some people with mental health conditions from buying guns.

She’d also like to see stepped-up school security. She’s heard talk about arming teachers and while she thinks that could help, she said, “I don’t feel like all teachers should have guns, at the same time.”

“Really scared and extremely angry”

Saroja Manickam, 15, is one of several students at Eagle Valley High School in western Colorado helping organize Wednesday’s walkout at her school. The sophomore, who said she’s been doing lockdown drills at school since first grade, was moved to get involved after the deadly shooting in Florida.

Saroja Manickam, a sophomore at Eagle Valley High School in western Colorado.

“When I read the news about the Parkland shooting I was just really scared and extremely angry about what was happening,” she said.

Manickam believes the Parkland shooting has resonated so strongly across the country because, “It’s the youth, it’s the kids from the actual shooting talking about it.”

Manickam said the point of her high school’s walkout is to spur action, though she also recognizes the tension in talking about gun control in a rural community where many people use firearms recreationally.

“We’re not saying we need to take away all guns,” she said. “This is to honor the victims and say something should be done.”

Manickam and her fellow walkout organizers have met with their principal and gotten permission to walk along a stretch of road in front of the school. She hasn’t made the sign she’ll carry yet, but she’s considering this message: “Could I be next?”

“Staying in and finishing what they started”

Eighteen-year-old Jabari Lottie is not planning to walk out of school Wednesday. Instead, the senior at northeast Denver’s Manual High School is helping plan a “walk-in” later this month so students from several nearby schools can come together to talk about gun violence.

The events that occurred happened while students were in the building,” Lottie said. “I feel like walking out is almost more disrespectful than staying in and finishing what they started.”

Manual High School student Jabari Lottie. (Courtesy Jabari Lottie)

Lottie has participated in protests before, joining other Manual students in walking out in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. He was also part of a walk-in at which Manual students hosted Denver police officers for a conversation about the relationship between law enforcement and the community. He said he preferred the conversation.

“We did a silent walkout and yeah, the people saw us in the streets, policemen saw us in the streets, but at the end of the day, it’s only a representation of what we think,” Lottie said. “But (with) a walk-in, we can really have a discussion.”

The planned walk-in on gun violence will feature students leading conversations about the necessity of guns and the dangers of them, the arguments for and against stricter gun control laws, and how other countries regulate guns compared to the United States, Lottie said.

Lottie said he believes something has to be done to keep people from killing each other with guns, a problem he sees as uniquely American. “If we all didn’t have guns, these altercations would not end in violence and mass shootings wouldn’t occur,” he said.

“It really does take a group of people to say we can’t take this anymore.”

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, a senior at Hinkley High School in Aurora, said the Parkland shooting had a magnified impact at her school when students were placed on lockout the same day.

It’s not entirely clear what happened. There was a report of someone in the school with a gun, Aurora police said, but a gun was never found. Three juveniles were charged with trespassing. A spokesman for the school district said the lockout was a precaution, and the police determined the school was safe.

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, Hinkley High School, Aurora (Courtesy Brianna Mauricio-Perez)

Mauricio-Perez said many students and parents feel the school district didn’t provide enough information about the incident and some question whether the correct response was used if the threat was reported inside the school.

“It started making us feel unsafe,” Mauricio-Perez said. “Even though nobody was hurt this time, what is it going to take for something to change?”

When she walks out Wednesday, Mauricio-Perez wants to send a message to her Aurora school district that communication should improve between students, parents, and officials so that all can work together to help keep schools safe. She also wants lawmakers to consider gun regulations.

“Things have to change,” she said. “It really does take a group of people to say we can’t take this anymore.”

“We need to show that this time will be different.”

A few weeks ago, Madeline Dean and several of her classmates from the Denver School of Science and Technology’s Stapleton campus went to the Colorado Capitol to testify against a bill that would have allowed people with concealed carry permits to bring handguns on to school grounds.

This bill, sponsored by a survivor of the Columbine massacre who now serves as the top Republican in the House, is part of Colorado’s perennial gun debate. Every year, Democrats kill this legislation after hours of emotional testimony.

It was there that students from DSST: Stapleton heard about the walkouts and started talking about doing their own. Many people thought Sandy Hook would be a turning point, said Dean, a senior, especially because the victims were so young. But nothing happened. She hopes this time is different.

“There is a lot of fear when you go to school and when you have lockdown drills,” Dean said. “In a lot of ways, students are directly affected by this, but they haven’t spoken out before. … Now that it’s happened again, we need to show that this time will be different, and we won’t accept this anymore.”

Dean sees the problem of gun violence as much broader than just mass shootings.

“A lot of people aren’t thinking about how it’s connected to other issues like police brutality and mental health,” she said. “We don’t talk about that, but people who care about those issues should care about this one.”

“We are honoring those people who lost their lives, with action.”

Caitlin Danborn, a 17-year-old junior at Arvada West High School in Jeffco, decided to organize a walkout at her school because she was inspired by the students in Florida, upset that shootings continue to happen, and worried after threats were made at her school just days after the shooting in Florida.

Caitlin Danborn, 17, Arvada West High School, Jeffco. (Courtesy photo)

“That really spoke to everyone at our school,” Danborn said. “We’ve had tightened security measures since then. We have to do things like sign out when we go to the bathroom.”

School administrators heard about Danborn’s plans when her Facebook event for the walkout had about 50 people confirming they would participate. Working with the administration, teachers, and other students, Danborn said the plans for Wednesday’s walkout will call for students to walk across the school to a field where students will form the shape of a heart. A drone will take aerial photos. Throughout the day, there will be letter-writing stations at the school where students can write a letter to their representatives.

“We wanted to have something tangible and very intentional that would be very visible,” Danborn said.

She thinks it’s unfortunate that students who are in fear have to stand up for change, but says that is why things are different after the Parkland shootings.

“I hope that people can see unity, and they can see that school safety and gun violence are two issues kids feel passionately about — enough that we’re willing to get up and walk out and do something visible,” Danborn said. “I also hope they can see that we are honoring those people who lost their lives, with action.”

“People will stop and say, ‘What are these kids doing?’”

Eighth-graders Ada Youngstrom, Lillian Lemme, and Rachel Zizmor say they’re motivated to walk out of school by love for the community they have at Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver.

“One of the big things we were talking about when we presented to our classmates is that one person with a gun could destroy our community,” Youngstrom, 13, said. “Skinner is a family, and gun violence has made us understand that that could go away so fast.”

From left: Lillian Lemme, Rachel Zizmor, Ada Youngstrom, all eighth-graders at Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver. (Courtesy Ada Youngstrom)

The students all come from politically active families, attended the Women’s March, and frequently discuss current events in social studies class. They’re frustrated that previous school shootings haven’t created any policy changes, and they don’t want this one to fade from the public eye.

“One thing I really want adults and politicians to take from this is that we’re not going to forget anymore,” Youngstrom said. “I’m never going to forget about the 17 (people) who are killed. From the day of the shooting on, we are holding their memories and their lives in our hands. I’m not going to just stand by.”

The organizers are hoping that between 300 and 600 students will walk out of school. Seventeen students will stand outside the school to represent the 17 lives lost as their classmates march out to West 38th Avenue, the main thoroughfare in the neighborhood.

“What we’re hoping to accomplish is that because 38th is a busy street, people will stop and say, ‘What are these kids doing?’ and know that we are doing something and maybe become aware,” said Lemme, 14. “If there’s a procession of 300 to 600 students, that’s not something you can ignore.”

The students said they know that walkouts by themselves won’t change laws, but it’s a way to honor the lives lost and keep the pressure on policy makers.

“This is powerful because it’s silent to show respect for the students in Florida, but by itself, it’s not going to change anything,” Zizmor, 14, said. “It’s a step in the right direction. … Just because we’re kids and we’re small doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference.”

“17 different things that would make a change”

The eighth-graders organizing the walkout at Denver’s Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver are hoping to focus on more than just the debate over gun control. Part of their goal is to give their fellow students different ways to honor the 17 victims of the Parkland shooting.

They’ve timed their walkout to last 17 minutes, with sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders each leaving school through different doors and taking similarly timed routes to the same public park. There, the students will read the names of the 17 victims and hold a moment of silence for each.

But for those who don’t want to walk out, or who want to do something more, the students are offering another option – one with its very own hashtag: #What’sYour17? The idea is to encourage teenagers to do “17 different things that would make a change,” said 13-year-old Jackie Estrada Hernandez, one of the students planning the walkout.

Those things could be as simple as smiling at 17 new people, the students said.

“It would help the community out because some people have problems, but if you smile and give them a compliment or something, it would probably make their day,” said Elena Skaro, 14.

Emanuel Lamboy, 13, had a different take.

“I imagine I’m smiling at the 17 people that died and trying to commemorate them,” he said.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.