Students at Sitka Sitka High walked out of school on Friday morning, joining a student-led demonstration calling for gun reform. The day holds significance as the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School Massacre. KCAW’s Katherine Rose spoke to organizers of the walkout before the protest took place and filed this report.
“There have been three national walkouts. The first one was on March 14, I believe we were on spring break, right?”
Howard Wayne stands at the front of his American Government class. He’s talking about the school district’s expectations for a “walkout.” Even if protests are student led, Wayne says the e adults still get to set some ground rules.
“It doesn’t mean because there’s a national demonstration going on that you get the day off, Wayne says, “and you just check in the following week and say ‘Well I was protesting.’”
This Friday at 10 a.m., students at Sitka High School will stand up and walk out of class along with teens across the country. The walkout, on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School Massacre, is the third in a series of nationwide student protests for gun law reform since March.
This isn’t the first time students have self-organized. Wayne reminds them of a walkout that happened in 2017, organized by now school board member and Sitka High senior Elias Erickson, to protest a 5 percent cut to the state education budget.
“How many of you participated in that? Anyone here?” Wayne asks.
Nearly all of the students in the classroom raise their hands. But two of the organizers of this walkout, Ella Lubin and Joe Pate, don’t know what to expect this time around. Lubin doesn’t know how many of her classmates are going to participate.
“It’s exciting,” Lubin says. “It’s going to be exciting to see how many of our classmates decide to stand with us.”
Both juniors, Lubin and Pate have been following the national student movement closely, ever since the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida in February. Pate recalls the moment he heard survivor and student activist Emma Gonzalez speak, prompting him to think about how Sitka kids could get involved. Pate explains how she stood in silence for 6 minutes and 52 seconds, the exact time in which the shooter, 19-year-old, Nikolas Cruz was at large.
“That was super impactful upon me,” Pate says. “I felt like if we want to get done what we want to get done, we need support from across the nation and that includes support from smaller schools like Sitka even to the larger ones.”
So why are students mobilizing now? Lubin has a theory.
“The last presidential election showed the quick polarization that’s taking place in the country,” she says. “I think for our generation right now that kind of was a wake up call. Wow, if people can change and digress to one side so quickly, why can’t we rise up so quickly?”
But Lubin, Pate and their fellow organizers did get some pushback from peers. They presented their idea for a local walk-out a recent student council meeting.
“Somebody spoke out saying they weren’t quite comfortable,” Lubin explains. “But because it’s a small school, it was very respectful how they did that. We didn’t want to infringe on their discomfort on the topic so we decided to take it out of the administrative body of student council.”
And Lubin says there are advantages to organizing the event as an independent group.
“Now we can make it on a more specific agenda which is gun reform instead of just school safety.”
The two specifically want to challenge state lawmakers on House Bill 75. That legislation would set up new procedures, allowing judges to bar those they deem mentally unfit from purchasing firearms. Psychiatrists, social workers, and counselors can also make that judgement of mental unfitness. The law would further allow police to seize weapons from those individuals for a period of time.
“I think that’s really important because we’re not taking people’s guns away, we just don’t want them in the hands of someone who would pose a danger to our lives,” Pate says.
HB 75 has been met opposition from the NRA, due to what the organization says is a lack of ‘due process.’ As the state legislature nears the end of session, the bill remains stuck in the house judiciary committee.
Pate and Lubin hope the walkout puts pressure on the legislature to act, but they also know gun reform is tricky in a place like Sitka. Many people own firearms and safely use them in day-to-day life.
“I know my own family, we subsist, hunt and many many other families across the state do the same thing,” Lubin says. “It’s a huge part of people’s lifestyle, so you have to go about ensuring school safety in a very special way. This is a message towards lawmakers that, hey as students we understand this is a difficult situation but we still want our safety guaranteed in schools.”
Lubin and Pate are used to considering all sides of an issue. They’re debate partners. But on the matter of tightening gun control laws, they’re taking a stand — and now hoping their peers stand with them.
KCAW will publish a follow-up story and interview with counter protest organizer Anders Marius on Monday.