Fresno teens, accustomed to local gun violence, join National Walkout Day protests

Fresno High School students join national protest with on-campus rally

Hundreds of students at Fresno High held a rally in support of National Walkout Day on Wednesday, March 14, 2018. The event was held a month after the deadly shootings at a Florida high school.
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Hundreds of students at Fresno High held a rally in support of National Walkout Day on Wednesday, March 14, 2018. The event was held a month after the deadly shootings at a Florida high school.

Fresno-area students walked out of class Wednesday morning to call for stricter gun regulations as part of a national protest for the 17 victims of last month’s Florida school shooting.

Hundreds stood outside of Fresno High School holding signs that asked, “Am I next?” and urged teens to register to vote, and to remove politicians who support lax gun laws from office.

“How many more school shootings will it take for the United States government to realize that there’s a clear gun control issue? Was Columbine not enough? Were the 20 murdered children of Sandy Hook not enough?” said 16-year-old Chris Gutierrez. “We will not be the next victims. We are the voices that will make the change. We will vote. This will be the last school shooting.”

Standing at a podium with a microphone, Ana Flores urged her peers to turn their fear into fuel.

Students at Fowler High School formed an enormous heart on campus Wednesday, March 14, 2018, honoring the 17 students shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February.

“Our job is to go to school and focus on that and not to think about what to do when someone with a gun walks in,” Flores said. “We need to stop normalizing school shootings. Enough is enough.”

For Fresno Unified — the state’s fourth-largest school district — gun violence is not a new topic. Last year, nearly 40 people were murdered over the span of six months in Fresno, mostly in gang-related shootings. Last month, a gunfire-detecting system was expanded to include more Fresno Unified campuses to help police respond more quickly to shootings.

“It’s just too much gun violence around us. It’s like nobody’s safe anymore,” said 17-year-old Fresno High student Destiny Harris. “We don’t know when the next time someone is going to get shot up, and it’s kind of sad that here, hearing gunshots is the norm. It shouldn’t be like that. We should not be used to hearing gunshots.”

In a demonstration Wednesday, the names of the Florida shooting victims were read aloud, along with a single drum beat to represent a gunshot, as rows of students sat or lay in the grass with each name. “Congress cannot hide for long. When we unite, our voice is strong,” students chanted.

Diamond Reeds, 18, said he wasn’t thinking only of the Florida victims at the Fresno High protest, but also of a former classmate who recently was shot and killed. “Gone, just like that,” he said of his friend. “Certain people think if they’ve got a gun, they’ve got power. We live in it. We see it.”

Fresno Unified Trustee Carol Mills was moved to tears by Wednesday’s events and said she hasn’t seen such student activism in her more than a decade on the school board.

“Our children should be more important than somebody’s assault weapon,” Mills said. “The students need to feel safe, and we do everything possible to make them safe. But they’re right – their voices need to be heard. They need to step up and become politically active, and yes, they need to vote because that’s how things are going to change.”

Wednesday’s large Fresno High event was mostly peaceful, but tensions were high when Ben Bergquam, stood just outside the campus wearing a Make America Great Again hat and used a megaphone to tell students that they need Jesus and that “guns are not the problem, evil is the problem.” While some students exchanged words with Bergquam, teachers quickly de-escalated the situation, telling them to “not feed the trolls” and “don’t take the bait.”

Around the Valley

Walkouts – mostly happening at 10 a.m. and lasting 17 minutes, as designed by national organizers — happened at several schools across the Valley and state. Other schools offered alternatives to students leaving campus. At Kingsburg High School, the school band played a tribute to the victims after recently playing alongside the Marjory Stoneman Douglas band in New York. At Sunnyside High, students and staff linked arms throughout the halls and courtyards to stand in solidarity.

At Clark Intermediate, a Clovis Unified middle school, only two students protested. “I’m disappointed that not a lot of people showed up, but I’m not surprised,” said 13-year-old student Andrija Zabala. “A lot of people here are very close-minded, and frankly it starts with the teachers.” According to a Clovis Unified spokeswoman, only 12 secondary school students out of 25,000 walked out of their classes Wednesday.

CUSD spokeswoman Kelly Avants said the district did not support a walkout on Wednesday because leaving campus could put students in an unsafe situation. However, staff members would not have stopped students who wanted to walk out, she said.

While some schools said there will be no repercussions for students protesting on Wednesday and voiced support for student activism, others continued to mark students absent or encouraged them not to leave campus. The American Civil Liberties Union has been advising schools that while they can discipline students for missing class, minors have a right to peacefully assemble – and can’t be punished more harshly based on their political message.

Fresno’s Computech Middle School was criticized for banning students from discussing guns during their event on Wednesday – a directive that at least one parent said is a violation of students’ First Amendment rights.

Nearly 60 students walked out of University High School, a charter school on Fresno State’s campus. Student organizer Zofia Trexler said some teachers had encouraged students to exercise their free-speech rights. Other teachers planned to assign work Wednesday that could not be made up, according to Trexler.

Bullard High School principal Carlos Castillo posted to Twitter his support of students: “Very proud of our students at Bullard,” he said. “Many showed in support of stopping gun violence.”

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays; Aleksandra Appleton: 559-341-3747, @aleksappleton