Utah students hold 2nd round of school-safety rallies Friday, marking Columbine anniversary

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) High school students gathered at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City to mark the anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre and call for action against gun violence, Friday April 20, 2018. Sammie Smith, a student at Skyline High School.

For just over six minutes Friday, a crowd of more than 300 Utah high school students lay silently on the ground, their arms stretched into the air.

The eerie display, at the base of the Utah Capitol steps, lasted for the exact duration of February’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., in which 14 students and three educators were killed.

“We will no longer be silenced,” said Riley Arnold, a Skyline High School freshman. “We will fight for our lives until the noise of our demands can no longer be ignored.”

The afternoon rally on Capitol Hill culminated a day of events that began with campus walkouts around 10 a.m. In what was described as a day of action, students were encouraged to leave class, register to vote and contact their elected representatives, while commemorating 19 years since the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado launched the modern era of campus attacks.

Students at nearly 15 schools in Salt Lake County said they planned to participate in Friday’s activities, which were among nearly 2,000 walkouts held at high schools and some middle schools in Utah and across the nation.

Remarks by participants frequently highlighted how students have spent their entire lives in a post-Columbine America, with a recurring, implied warning to lawmakers as speakers and signs highlighted the impending midterm elections for Congress.

“We are the mass shooting generation,” said Gracie Shirley, a senior at Salt Lake City’s Highland High School, “and we are nearing voting age.”

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Over one hundred students at Highland High School staged a walkout Friday April 20, 2018 in honor of the anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre. Demonstrators walked from the school to Sugar House Park where they made posters, wrote letters to their congressmen and listened to speakers.

Just before 11 a.m. Friday, Highland students Leandra Lemon and Kat Ferguson put the finishing touches on their protest signs.

Lemon, a senior, had written “I should be writing essays, not my will,” while nearby Ferguson, a sophomore, was adding red ink to emphasize letters on her sign that read “Don’t SHOOT I want to GROW UP.”

“It could happen to any school anywhere, and that needs to change,” Ferguson said, recalling the fear she felt after the shooting in Parkland. “I shouldn’t be focused on where I should run if something happens. I should be focused on learning.”

Lemon said she hoped “the older people” would notice and listen to what teenagers are saying. No child, she said, should ever have to text their parents “goodbye” while hiding from a shooter.

“We shouldn’t have to be scared to go to school,” she said.

Roughly 100 Highland students participated in Friday’s walkout, leaving school to gather at a nearby pavilion in Sugar House Park.

The scale and scope of the protests Friday appeared to be much smaller than a similar student-led national walkout March 14 and the March for Our Lives rallies in Washington and communities across the U.S. on March 24.

Lower turnout was blamed on a lack of promotion and questions about goals, conflicts with mandatory standardized testing, and, in some cases, protest fatigue among students.

While the two walkout campaigns share a central theme and mission — calling for school safety and gun regulation — they differed significantly in tone and scope.

The March 14 events were solemn and relatively brief, with most students returning to class within an hour.

But Friday’s walkout at Highland was energetic and scheduled to last for the bulk of the day, with students planning to join their peers from other schools at the centralized afternoon rally at the Capitol.

“I did not even go to first period,” Shirley said. “I’ve been here since 8 o’clock in the morning.”

Shirley said she would like to see the minimum age for firearm purchases lifted to 21; a ban on assault rifles and other “war-class” weapons; and so-called “red flag” laws that allow seizure of weapons from people who are determined to be a danger to themselves or others. Participants were encouraged to register to vote if they are turning 18 before November’s elections.

School administrators were accommodating, she said, but some teachers expressed a feeling of being disrespected by the disruption to the school day.

“We’re not trying to disrespect you,” Shirley said. “This is just a national movement, and it’s the right time and the right place to do this.”

At the afternoon rally, Skyline High School senior Cole Griffiths remarked that his first reaction was concern when he saw a proposed redesign for his campus. The plans call for large windows and glass walls — a common trend among new school construction and renovation — and Griffiths worried about how he would hide if a shooter targeted the school.

Similar concerns have been raised by many teachers and students in the wake of the Florida shooting as plans for new or updated buildings aim to bolster natural lighting in classrooms and hallways.

“You can’t shelter in place inside a glass box,” Griffiths said.

Several Utah lawmakers, all Democrats, participated in a panel discussion after Friday’s rally. Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, drew loud cheers from the students when she boasted about her “F” grade from the National Rifle Association.

“I’ve never taken a dime from the NRA,” Arent said.

But most of the crowd’s adulation was directed at student organizers, such as East High School senior Ashley Jimenez.

In her remarks from the Capitol steps, Jimenez said students should get more than lip service from government leaders and that she shouldn’t feel terrified every time her school’s alarm bell rings.

“School should be a safe place,” she said, “not a war zone.”

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