Students attending public high schools throughout the Flathead Valley took part Wednesday in a national walkout day to honor the 17 people killed one month ago, when a gunman fatally shot staff and students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida.
Similar walkouts unfolded across the country as thousands of students held memorials to raise awareness about school safety and gun violence.
In the Flathead, walkouts and memorial events began at 10 a.m. and ran exactly 17 minutes to represent the 17 shooting victims.
Many of the actions on local campuses were coordinated with student leaders and administrators, who are seeking a middle ground that acknowledges and supports students engaged in protests while ensuring rules are followed, students remain safe and the events are not politicized.
At Whitefish High School, some students found their most prominent platform to be silence, gathering in the school’s foyer to remember each of the 17 victims killed in the Feb. 14 Florida mass shooting.
Others took to the streets to confront the nation’s rampant gun violence, marching through downtown Whitefish with picket signs that read “ENOUGH” and advocated for a solution to end school shootings.
Abby Lowry, a junior at Whitefish High, and freshman Taylor Gentry said they admired the student body’s efforts to memorialize the Parkland victims by sharing their names and personal details. Still, they felt compelled to make a stronger statement aimed directly at thwarting gun violence.
“The school in Florida could have been our school,” Lowry, 16, said. “It could have been any school. We are all sorry this tragedy happened, but being sorry isn’t enough.”
Gentry pointed out that the Parkland shooting marks the 14th school shooting so far in 2018.
“And we’re only 10 weeks into the year,” she said. “This has been an issue since I’ve been born and we have a right to feel safe at school. We shouldn’t have to worry about this.”
Lowry said she grew up in a hunting family and learned how to properly handle and shoot firearms through hunter’s education courses, which she believes should be requisite before anyone can legally own a gun.
“It’s not that we are against guns,” she said. “But there are steps people should have to take before they own guns. I think that is very necessary.”
At Columbia Falls High School, sophomore Kailey Schrader and senior Kathleen Felton organized a walkout to honor the victims with a moment of silence, while senior Braxton Shewalter, concerned that the event would be perceived as an affront to gun rights, rallied a group of students to memorialize the victims while also standing up for responsible gun ownership.
“Our primary goal is to honor the victims of the school shooting in Florida,” Shewalter said. “But we also want to support our right to own guns and show that you’re not to blame for these tragedies just because you oppose gun control.”
Student-led plans were also scheduled at Flathead High School, where student leadership planned a brief event to take place Wednesday afternoon in Senior Square. The students chose to “focus on kindness and improving connections at school,” according to Principal Michele Paine, and called the event “17 Minutes of Silence Memorial.”
Roughly 35 people, mostly students and a few community members, gathered outside Bigfork High School Wednesday morning for a vigil to honor the victims.
Riley Hoveland, a Bigfork senior and the event’s organizer at her school, handed out posters inscribed with quotes from friends and family of the Florida victims before addressing the crowd. As Hoveland gave brief descriptions of each victim, a classmate handed out 17 flowers to people in attendance, each flower unique to “symbolize the unique life that was taken.”
“We’re standing up for what we believe in,” Hoveland, who will attend Harvard University in the fall, said. “We’re standing up for life, for love and for safety.”
Though Hoveland had heard rumors of counter-protests, none transpired, as everybody was gathered in solidarity.
“I challenge all of you to make a new friend,” Hoveland told her fellow students. “Walk up to someone who maybe sits alone at lunch or maybe doesn’t necessarily have as many friends. I want you guys to be the ones to say hi and make new friends.”
Hoveland also called on her classmates be active outside of school.
“Give back to your community,” she said. “This is the community that raised us. Bigfork, Montana truly is the village that raised our children.”
With the temperature barely reaching freezing, most of the students wore no coats because they had marched outside directly from class. After Hoveland concluded her remarks, freshman Anastasia Beth said the national vigils should be a starting point, not a conclusion.
“We should use this as a sign to keep moving forward,” she said. “It’s OK if you’re afraid, but I would like to say we’re fighting through this now and this is a time of action.”
“We should no longer fear doing what we think we should,” she added.
Debbie Ingram, whose two children graduated from Bigfork High School more than a decade ago, attended the gathering to show her support for the students.
“I’m so proud of you,” Ingram said. “I personally think with you guys our future is very bright. I’m very impressed and I see it daily.”
Afterward, Ingram said the sight of kids taking action inspires her to do so as well.
“At 63 years old, I’m finally activated,” she said. “I’m not just watching the news; I’m getting out there and doing something. I’m so tired of hearing how kids are coddled today. Our kids are doing great things, and they’re absolutely our future.”
One by one, Glacier High School students stood at the microphone in front of about 150 of their peers and read 17 brief biographies of the students and teachers slain in the Feb. 14 massacre.
“Please keep these stories with you,” student organizer Abigail Roston said. “Don’t forget these stories, because it could happen anywhere.”
The students filed out of the school at precisely 10 a.m., right when the students running the memorial began to read biographies of the 14 students and three teachers killed in the shooting.
Police presence was noticeable, with two officers standing guard between the students and the parking lot, and police vehicles in clear view. Several pairs of adults stopped by the event as well, and there were no counter protesters.
The walkout wasn’t political, the students said, but rather intended to take a stand against gun violence in America, and against the idea that they should have to remain vigilant against shootings while they’re trying to learn.
As the biographies were read, the students quieted and stilled, the buzz from the change in their routine gone. They packed tightly together, and a small circle separated for prayer and contemplation.
Once all of the biographies were read, they listened to a song composed by the survivors at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and Roston once again encouraged her peers to get involved, have their voices heard, to vote; the students plan to hold voter registration for 18-year-old students in coming weeks.
Roston also told her peers to remember that they are all human, and compassion can go a long way.
“Hug your parents, and cherish your friends,” she said. “Be kind.”
At precisely 10:17 a.m., the students walked back into the school. When asked about the event and her students afterward, Principal Callie Langhor said, “Very well-spoken.”