Students demonstrating in Merced County on Wednesday said the state of gun control in the U.S. is “sad,” and called for Congress to pass new gun control laws in response to mass shootings that have plagued the country in recent years.
Seventh- and eighth-graders in Le Grand marched from their classrooms at 10 a.m. and demonstrated for 17 minutes, a minute for every student killed Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
“It’s kind of sad that we’re the generation that has to fear school,” Riley Lopez said. “We have to have ‘Code Red’ drills.”
The 13-year-old referred to drills that students practice in the case of an active shooter on campus, including turning out the lights and hiding under desks. Each classroom has to have two exit routes in case the shooter comes from different entrances.
News agencies across the country reported demonstrations for National School Walkout Day, in which students planned to walk out of school for 17 minutes to protest gun violence.
All of the campuses in the Merced Unified High School District had students walkout Wednesday in solidarity with the Florida pupils, according to Ralph Calderon, deputy superintendent. The district includes campuses in Merced, Atwater and Livingston.
“All in all, it was a very appropriate activity for the kids to partake in,” Calderon said in a phone interview. “It’s very important to them and we recognize that and I think we’re all on the same side here for sure."
Calderon said no students left campus.
The students in Le Grand said they weren’t calling for an outright ban on specific guns, but wanted funding to secure schools and stricter background checks for gun buyers.
Students in Florida took a firmer stance, calling for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and for expanding background checks to all gun sales, among other proposals. They also oppose any legislation that would “aim to fortify our schools with more guns.”
The demonstration in Le Grand was organized by the student leadership asked students to fill out ballots that would be sent to Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, students said. The teens hoped to inspire other students to use their voices, according to eight-grader Easten Pirddell.
“You don’t have to hide in the shadows. You have a voice. Speak out,” the 13-year-old said.
Safety and security were a concern for school administrators, so the students agreed to keep the demonstration on campus, according to Rosina Hurtado, superintendent of Le Grand Union Elementary School District.
She said the walkout was planned entirely by students, many of whom have been involved in active shooter drills their entire school career. “This is something they have had to grow up with,” she said.
A Merced High School junior, William Fontes said “surprisingly” many students stepped up to the microphone to speak at his school’s rally. He said he was pleased with how it turned out.
“It’s kind of hard to go to school when you feel afraid every day,” the 16-year-old said. “I feel like (Merced High) is safe. There’s always going to be that sense of doubt.”
The walkout there was planned by the student government, he said, adding 300 or 400 students joined in.
Merced High Principal Kurt Kollmann did not allow reporters onto the campus to cover the walkout on Wednesday. “This event was a student-led event, and (I) felt to be able to allow them the space they requested, it was best to give them space,” Kollman said in an email to the Sun-Star.
Keeping reporters off of a school campus, a public space maintained by tax dollars, is not district policy, Calderon confirmed.
Not all school districts welcomed the demonstrations. Administrators in some parts of the nation have said they will suspend students who participate.
Parents and other supporters stood outside of Merced High holding signs that said “We are here. We are United. We are Strong.”
Andrea Zimmerman, 46, has a son at Merced High and said he’s been talking about the massacre in Florida, and the impacts it has had on his peers.
“This peaceful demonstration is just the beginning of this activism,” she said. “This generation grew up feeling frightened at school.”
“I think every parent carries a little bit of that fear,” Zimmerman said.
The national walkout is the latest in a series of protests planned in the wake of the Parkland shooting. Stoneman Douglas students have organized a March 24 “March For Our Lives” in Washington, D.C., and another march in Parkland on the same date. Merced has its own version that same day.
The Miami Herald contributed to this report.