OPHS students participates in national walkout.
March 29, 2018
Amid public outcry advocating for gun safety, concerned Oak Park High School students and staff participated in the #Enough National School Walkout Day March 14 in response to the Parkland, Florida shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.
The 17-minute walkout was nationally organized by Women’s March Youth Empower campaigners and started at 10 a.m. for schools and allies across the country. The Oak Park High School administration coordinated a special bell schedule to release students five minutes earlier to nutrition. Seniors Kimia Mohebi and Olivia Winck spoke alongside Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks during the walkout where a moment of silence was held to honor the 17 victims of the Parkland shooting.
“The walkout opened up the eyes of many people who were previously complacent to a lot of the injustices occurring around them,” Mohebi said.
The University of Alabama found that roughly 31 percent of the world’s mass shooters are American.
“From Sandy Hook Elementary school in Connecticut to Douglas High School in Parkland Florida, and even in our own backyard at UCSB, and in EEO Green Junior High School in Oxnard, the effects of gun violence in our students and communities is our national shame,” Parks said in her speech.
At the beginning of March, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors sent a letter to Congress supporting stronger gun control laws that would make it illegal to buy or possess firearms like military style assault rifles.
“We as students need to be on the right side of history. We need to be making steps to actually eradicate the issue and to not be afraid to get political or say something that might cause controversy,” senior and Young Social Activists Club president Riti Hegde said.
Some students chose not to participate in the walkout and proposed alternative ideas like having a forum on how to contact U.S. representatives or senators. Some reported that they could barely hear the speakers and felt like students weren’t participating.
“I don’t think standing in a circle with a bunch of teenagers can accomplish anything,” sophomore Blake Hanlon said, who didn’t attend the walkout.
Just across the lawn from the walkout, Superintendent Tony Knight coordinated voter registration for teens 16-years or older to pre-register and 18-year-olds to register to vote. Knight coordinated voter registration alongside Rock the Vote, an organization that partnered with the Women’s March Empower group to organize nationwide walkouts.
“Voter registration is the first step when it comes to building your political power. Once you’re registered to vote we really encourage you to exercise your right to vote and that’s just the first step to being an active citizen,” RTV Civic Engagement Manager Shaniece Simmons said.
Sophomore Grace Hassanieh was among the 100 or so students who registered.
“I feel like if I have a voice I can make a difference for what I believe should be done,” Hassanieh said.
In the instance that there is a school shooting, the district would follow the “Run, hide, fight” policy. Principal Kevin Buchanan said there is a seven-minute response time for law enforcement; however, it took suspected Parkland shooter 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz only six minutes and 20 seconds to murder 17 of his peers and send the nation into turmoil.
Buchanan said he doesn’t plan on arming teachers, implementing bullet proof windows in classrooms or doing anything to “harden the school.” He’d rather have active shooter drills: simulating an active shooter on campus to inform the reactions of faculty and students.
But for now, Buchanan said he wants more awareness on campus grounds.
“Prevention means getting to know our kids, understanding and recognizing the students who are in distress, and speaking up and telling someone,” Buchanan said.
TIME Magazine reported that the March 14 school walkouts surpassed the 750,000 protesters who overwhelmed the Washington Mall for the Million Mom March in 2000 in what was then the largest gun-safety protest in U.S. history.
“We’re being introduced to a new era where young people are given a seat at the table and if there isn’t a seat for them, they will make that seat,” Mohebi said.
Oak Park High School students were allowed to leave class due to an organized bell schedule and could be marked tardy upon return, whereas Westlake High School students had the option to leave class and were not marked tardy upon arrival to their next class.
“We are willing to put our educations on the line to save our own lives. So, we made sure there was class during those 17 minutes,” WHS senior Victoria Barrios said.
Two years ago, Barrio’s brother –– who suffers from mental illness –– was shot and survived while walking alone in Los Angeles. Barrios feels Americans also need to “shift how we perceive mental illness as dark and sinister and start treating it as a problem that’s very solvable and approachable.”
“People who have severe mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence in general, rather than perpetrators of it,” Barrios said.
According to the Everytown for Gun Safety organization, an average of seven children and teens are killed by gun violence every day in the U.S. Nonetheless, the Pew Research Center found that over a third of American households own a gun.
“Today is like the world’s on fire. It wasn’t that way back then. The violence that’s happening in schools and in offices and in factories is, to me, unprecedented,” history teacher Russell Peters said.
A Quinnipiac University national poll published Feb. 20, 2018, reported that American voters support common sense gun laws two to one with around 45 percent support from gun owners. Despite disputes over gun control, the issue is much more complex.
“The youth of America have managed to reframe this issue in a nonpartisan way and not make it about gun control or the second amendment –– they make it about school safety, which is a universal issue and cuts across all political persuasions,” Buchanan said.
Sophomore and founder of the Shirts vs. Guns project, Chaitanya Ivaturi, worked with a handful of Oak Park High School students to sell over 80 orange shirts with the slogan “protect us not guns.” Ivaturi hopes that her peers can put aside political differences and find common ground.
“People are realizing that having neutral, comfortable spaces to hold open dialogue is the only way to move forward. You can’t have two split sides on a discussion, especially in America where there’s freedom of speech. You have to find a compromise in order to be progressive,” Ivaturi said.
The Parkland students who inspired the recent walkouts are also focused on highlighting the influence the National Rifle Association has on politicians on both sides of the aisle. The Trump administration, whose presidential campaign benefited from over 21 million dollars in funding from the NRA, continues to support the freedom to carry semi-automatic weapons under slightly regulated terms. For the 2018 congressional cycle, the Center for Responsive Politics reported that Democrats have so far received $7,000 from the NRA, contrasting the $197,850 funded toward Republicans.
“We’re at the mercy of the legislators who are in the pockets of the NRA who won’t come to terms with the fact that nobody needs a semiautomatic rifle,” Buchanan said. “Until the Republican legislators find a conscious, our kids, our teachers, our staff are vulnerable. But I don’t know if we can realistically expect them to change.”
In 2016, the Oak Park Unified School District Board of Education passed a board policy banning guns in any form on campuses. Some protesters think teachers should be armed to combat school violence. However, that has faced severe backlash from teachers across the nation.
“This isn’t what we signed up for, this constant vigilance and monitoring our students’ psyches and their whereabouts and their social media, poking our noses in their lives trying to find out what they’re up to and how are they,” Buchanan said.
In the words of Parkland shooting survivor and MSD senior Emma Gonzalez, “We call BS.”
“We’re the next generation, we can make a change,” Hassanieh said. “No more lives should be lost.”