Saratoga Springs • Kaylee Anderson said she expected “at most” 30 of her classmates at Westlake High School to participate in a national walkout on Wednesday to commemorate the victims of last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
But at 10 a.m., under a light rain, roughly 80 students met Anderson at the flag pole at the Saratoga Springs school for a silent, 17-minute demonstration — one minute for each victim of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School attack.
Exact numbers are not yet known, but the demonstration was among more than 30 school walkouts carried out along the Wasatch Front, involving thousands of Utah students.
The Westlake group stood silently, facing away from the school. Some held signs listing the names and ages of the Parkland victims while others bore message like “#Enough,” “#NoMore” and “We Stand United.”
“This turnout just blew my mind,” Anderson said.
Afterward, as Westlake students headed back inside the school, shouts shattered the silence as bodies were pushed against the entry doors and police officers rushed in to stop a fight that had broken out.
The incident was beyond the view of the media attending the event, but student and adult witnesses said several punches were thrown after a male student critical of the walkout confronted participants.
Anderson said it was the first and only violence she had seen related to the walkout, but not the first instance of opposition. Almost from the moment she started organizing the demonstration, she said, critics commented on her social media posts, texted her, and muttered as they passed her in the hallways that she was stupid and wasting her time.
“Especially in Utah County there are a lot more people who are against the walkout,” the Westlake junior said Wednesday. “It’s hard to stay positive.”
Nationally, organizers say there were nearly 3,000 walkouts Wednesday from Maine to Hawaii in what may be one of the biggest demonstrations yet of U.S. student activism to emerge since the Parkland deaths.
In Utah, the student-led demonstrations were individually organized, largely with the permission or accommodation from Utah’s school district administrators. Groups offered a variety of reasons for joining in, from showing solidarity with survivors to a critique of the nation’s gun laws and calls for enhanced safety measures on school campuses.
Most of the Utah protests were wrapped up within an hour or less as a soft rain continued to fall over northern portions of the state.
At Brighton High School in Cottonwood Heights, nearly 100 students streamed onto the football field and filled the bleachers. Names of Parkland victims were called out and students listened in somber silence.
School staffers looked on — with one translating for sign-language speakers — as participants later chanted and sang.
Brighton senior Meghan Taylor, 17, was crying after the protest. Her friend Meg Flynn, 18, comforted her while they stood on the field.
“It’s just really hard to know these kids are dying for nothing,” Taylor said through tears. “Thinking about those individuals and what they could have done with their lives, it makes me sad.”
She said she was surprised how many students joined the walkout and took moments of silence for the victims. “We are these kids,” Taylor said.
News media members were prohibited from visiting some campuses during the walkouts, including all the schools in Davis County School District.
“Public sidewalks are open to anyone,” Davis spokesman Chris Williams told The Salt Lake Tribune, “and photographers do have long lenses.”
But at other schools, students and administrators welcomed publicity, seeing it as a way to convey their message.
Thank you to all of our students who conducted themselves in a respectful and mature manner. It made your message so much more effective. Now finish your message by doing 17 acts of random kindness or making 17 new friends. This will help make your school a safer place. #Walkout— Granite School Dist. (@GraniteSchools) March 14, 2018
And many administrators elected to sponsor a “Walk Up” — either instead of or in addition to the walkouts — in which students were encouraged to introduce themselves to unfamiliar classmates and seek out new friendships.
“Instead of walking out of the school to make a point, walk up to people you don’t know,” said Emily Frost, a Westlake senior and member of the school’s Future Farmers of America club. “Walk up to people who maybe feel alone.”
Logan Story, a Westlake junior who also participated in the walkout, said the school’s “Walk Up” campaign was a welcome addition to the student-led demonstration.
“It’s fun and a good idea to do the Walk Up,” Story said. “I talked to at least three people so far, and it’s actually helped me out. It’s made me feel like I’m actually doing something.”
Anderson said she’s sensitive to the issue of gun violence and public safety. Her mother was a participant during the 2013 Boston Marathon that was attacked by bombers.
She said she occasionally worries about her own safety at school and is easily startled by loud noises, including the celebratory cannons at a Brigham Young University football game.
“We haven’t learned from past mistakes,” she said. “I hope that leaders — locally, statewide, nationally — realize that there needs to be change, fast.”
Wednesday’s walkouts were the first in a series of planned events related to school safety and gun violence.
On March 24, Utah students plan to march to the Utah Capitol in conjunction with the national March For Our Lives in Washington. And similar walkouts are planned for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre in Columbine, Colo.
In Utah, legislative leaders recently convened a school safety commission, which is expected to discuss and eventually recommend policy changes to bolster public safety.
The commission’s creation was tied to a so-called “red flag” bill before the Utah Legislature that would have allowed seizure of weapons if a court determined someone to be a danger to themselves or others. But the bill was poorly received by Utah lawmakers.