La Grande High School senior Sylvia Alf-Rippee walked Wednesday so that someday other students will not have to run in fear.
Alf-Rippee was one of more than 200 LHS and La Grande Middle School students who walked out of their schools at about 10 a.m. as part of a national student event protesting gun violence. Students remained out of class for 17 minutes, one minute for each of the victims in the deadly Feb. 14 shooting Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Alf-Rippee, who said she saw the images of students running out of their school in Parkland, was one of four students who helped organize the walkout in La Grande. She hopes that protests like the walkout will help end gun violence in schools.
“I am really praying that (the Parkland shooting) is the last school shooting,” said Alf-Rippee, who put together the walkout with juniors Mollie Smith, Elizabeth Babcock and Caiya Chandler.
About 100 LHS students participated in the walkout. The young women who led the protest expressed surprise about the size of the turnout.
“I expected 10 or 15 people, knowing the tradition of the community,” Babcock said.
Babcock was making reference to the large number of gun rights supporters in Northeast Oregon, something the other leaders of the student walkout also acknowledged.
“People who live in this area are passionate about keeping their guns,” Smith said.
Alf-Rippee stressed, though, that the walkout was not meant to be an anti-firearm protest. A member of La Grande High School’s trapshooting team, she said she does not oppose guns but she does believe that the use of guns needs to be more tightly regulated.
“You need a license to drive but not a license to own a gun,” the senior said.
LHS students gathered at the north end of the LHS track during the walkout, and the LMS students met on their school’s outdoor basketball courts.
Between 100 and 150 LMS students took part in the protest. LMS Assistant Principal Brett Jackman viewed the walkout as a teachable moment regarding the First Amendment.
“We saw this as an opportunity for the students to learn about freedom of speech and how it can be balanced with the instructional needs of the school,” he said.
Speaking Wednesday afternoon, Jackman said he was encouraged by the walkout.
“It was a positive thing that focused on preventing violence,” he said. “The majority of our students were thoughtful. They are truly concerned about school violence and want to be part of the solution.”
LMS Counselor Jessica Frasier spoke to the students during the first part of the walkout, encouraging them to be proactive in helping their school to be a place where students are safe and feel welcomed.
She said they can do this by becoming part of the National Walk Up movement.
“So now that you’ve walked out, we challenge you to walk up!” Frasier said. “Walking out raises awareness for a topic, but Walking Up puts change into action. What can you do to positively affect our school and community? Walking Up provides benefits in preventing school violence by making LMS a more welcoming place. Walk Up to someone who sits alone at lunch and talk to them. Walk Up and be an Upstander when you notice someone getting picked on. It takes courage to Walk Up, but it will make a difference.”
At LHS, student leaders provided their classmates with cards to write down their feelings about school violence and how it can be stopped. The cards will be sent to State Representative Greg Barreto (R-Cove).
The walkout Wednesday was allowed on school campuses due in large part to a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District case. In the 7-2 decision, the nation’s highest court concluded that students’ constitutional rights continue when they are on school grounds.
This means that school officials cannot suppress free speech on campus unless they can prove that the conduct in question would “materially and substantially interfere” with the operation of the school, according to Oyez (www.oyez.org,) a free law project from Cornell’s Legal Information Institute, Chicago-Kent College of Law and Justia.com.
Participation in the walkout was not without repercussion, though. At LHS, those who joined the protest were late for their third period classes and received a tardy notice. Students who have three tardies receive a lunch detention, which means they must spend 20 minutes in a room during the lunch hour with other students who have lunch detentions.
Chandler said the tardy notice does not bother her.
“If I was suspended, I would still do it,” the junior said.
Babcock expressed a similar sentiment.
“It is a small price for the impact. This is going to matter,” she said. “The fact that I was standing up for what I believe in was more important than that I missed class.”
LHS Vice Principal Scott Carpenter was impressed by how the students handled themselves in a peaceful and respectful manner during the walkout and with the objective of the event.
“It is about remembering the students, and it is about (ending gun) violence. What can be done to keep schools safe?” Carpenter said.
LHS English and French teacher Kevin Cahill also liked how the students handled themselves.
“They were very courteous and mindful of the seriousness of the situation,” he noted. “They took a positive step in the direction of bringing meaningful change.”
Cahill approved of the students being given the chance to write their own thoughts on the cards sent to Barreto.
“They were able to craft their own messages,” he said. “Every individual has a different perspective on things.”
Babcock said she was encouraged by how the public paid attention to students participating in the national walkout and their messages.
“Our voices have value,” she said.