By Reggie Ellis and Patrick Dillon
TULARE COUNTY – High school students in nearly every school district in Tulare County joined the thousands of teenagers nationwide who participated in a school walkout on March 14. Some of the walkouts were protest rallies advocating for stricter gun laws, including more comprehensive, universal background checks, bans on assault rifles and after market conversions of semi-automatic weapons to fully automatic and other restrictions on guns. Others were simply silent moments of solidarity to reme
mber students who were shot and killed in Parkland, Fla.
In Woodlake, it was a moment of silence for the victims of the Florida high school shooting with signs representing both sides of the argument and every student seeking answers and solutions to keep them and their classmates safe.
A group of 75 students met on the quad at Woodlake High School at 10 a.m. and held a moment of silence for 17 minutes, in honor of the 14 students and three staff members killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School a month earlier on Feb. 14. Senior Carlos Lucatero, ASB President and Woodlake’s Youth of the Year, helped organize the walkout along with fellow members of the Student Health Advocates for Pure Environment (SHAPE). Lucatero said the club’s goal is to make sure the campus and the students on campus are safe, but not necessarily by banning guns. Lucatero said he is personally in favor of more gun regulations but admits that his family doesn’t own guns and that he is not educated enough in the topic.
“I think whether you are on either side of the debate, pro-gun or anti-gun, I think we can all agree what happened at Parkland, Florida, should not have happened,” Lucatero said in an interview after the walkout. “We should be focused on keeping our students safe, so this is definitely something we need to take about in order to keep our students and fellow Americans safe.”
After the 17 minutes had passed, Lucatero and all of his classmates calmly returned to their classes. He and other students had met with administrators several times to discuss their plans. Lucatero said administrators asked students to slide the demonstration closer to the morning break after second period but said students wanted to be part of the national movement at 10 a.m.
“The fact we were still respectful and we did what we were told that was very important,” Lucatero said. “It showed Woodlake students are wanting to affect change but we are not trying to do it in a disrespectful way. We just want to make a difference and bring attention to something which is an issue.”
Woodlake High School Principal Rick Rodriguez said students who participated in the walkout were late to their second period class and received a tardy, the standard administrative response. For most students it was just a warning for a first offense, but for a few it was a punishment worthy of taking a stand on the issue.
“We were glad the students wanted to stay on campus where they can be supervised and safe,” Rodriguez said. “We didn’t do anything to encourage that they miss class time and those that did were cited for tardiness, so nothing out of the ordinary.”
At Farmersville High School, Principal Lisa Whitworth accommodated students to make sure they stayed on campus during the 17 minutes, which began shortly after the morning break at 9:55 a.m. She even had her staff set up speakers and microphones to help students get their message out to a large crowd of more than 150 students.
“Our students are unique and compassionate young people,” Whitworth said. “They wanted to provide a positive message to their peers and we wanted them to have the opportunity to do that. We have a great culture on campus and did not have any worries about that.”
Junior Armando Baldwin, president of the Key Club and a member of student leadership, said he read the names of all 17 victims in Parkland, Fla. when his classmate was overcome with emotion to the point where she couldn’t even begin the list. After reading the names, Baldwin said students shared some of the stories of the victims, such as the head football coach who sacrificed himself to shield students from the gunfire. That was followed by every student there holding hands in an “unbreakable chain” of silence for the remaining time.
“I was proud to see all of my classmates together,” Baldwin said. “I think it hit a lot of us pretty hard and this was not a time of anger, but to stand strong together and show we are united.”
As students returned to class, Baldwin and the other juniors who had helped organize the walkout encouraged their classmates to introduce themselves to students they didn’t know and go out of their way to say hello to students who were walking alone.
“If there is a problem between them and another student, we wanted them to talk about it,” he said. “If we don’t exclude people maybe we can help prevent things like this from happening to others.”
Students at Exeter Union High School did not plan anything for the walkout. Principal Robert Mayo said that no students had met with him to discuss anything leading up to the national walkout. Mayo had instructed teachers and staff to allow students to leave their second period class, which began at 9:52 a.m., to participate in the national walkout, but said he and other staff were going to approach students to discuss their reasons for not being in class.
“I didn’t want to create any animosity but I also wanted to make sure kids were out there for a reason and not just cutting class,” he said. “If they were out there for their beliefs and ideas I was going to use that time for education.”