Students across Montana joined the nationwide school walkout today on the one month anniversary the Florida school shooting. Nicky Ouellet reports from the Flathead Valley, Corin Cates-Carney reports from Helena, and Edward O'Brien reports from Missoula.
Students in the Flathead Valley walked out of class and held rallies to honor victims of the Parkland shooting.
Outside Glacier High School in Kalispell, more than 200 students clustered around a row of 17 empty chairs, representing the 17 victims at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, while classmates read biographies and memories of the victims.
An original song that survivors of Stoneman Douglas wrote, called “Shine,” played during a moment of silence.
Senior Abigail Roston, who co-organized the event, ended by encouraging her classmates to hug their parents, cherish their friends and stay engaged.
"Don’t let this event be the last step you take. Call and write our senators and representatives at both the state and the national level. Most importantly, to the seniors who are 18, you have to vote," Roston said.
Roston and others are planning to organize voter registration tables during lunch period in the next few weeks.
Roston said that while students at Glacier High used the umbrella of #Enough to help structure their event, their local group doesn’t entirely align with the national movement’s five legislative goals for gun control and reform.
"We don't think it would work in Montana, and some of us don't think it would work nationwide. If we were to narrow the scope, that would just be narrowing the dialogue. And what we wanted to do is have those open conversations," she said.
Roston added that even she and her co-organizer, Harrison Rennie, have nearly opposing views on gun control, and the focus of the walkout was not to isolate people with different points of view, but begin a conversation.
Rennie, also a senior at Glacier High, says classroom conversations have changed since the Parkland shooting. He says teachers there recently went through "Run, Lock, Fight" training, and lockdown drills for students now feel like part of the curriculum.
"We went through when it would be appropriate to run, and when it would be appropriate to barricade the classroom door. I even had teachers that said things like, 'I would be willing to be the first one to go,' and, 'Even if I've been shot, that doesn't mean that I’m dead.' That's just a really difficult thing to hear from your teachers. But I think it's important we're aware of this, as this is currently the reality that we have in our schools."
Students across the Flathead participated in the national walkout in varying ways.
Flathead High School in Kalispell planned a memorial after school, though about 20 students walked out at 10 a.m.
In Columbia Falls, students organized two separate events: a memorial that followed the basic outline of the #Enough message — which sources say drew about 75 students — and a counter-protest supporting responsible gun owners and the National Rifle Association, which reportedly drew about 50.
Columbia Falls High School Principal Scott Gaiser said teachers and staff were mindful of conflict following the walkout, but students returned to class together without issue.
"I think our kids represent well that, 'hey, we can have dialogue, we can be civil, we can respect each other's views even if I don't agree with it,'" Gaiser said.
In Whitefish, members of student council worked with school administrators to host an in-school memorial assembly. Walkouts were considered unexcused absences.
In Lakeside, more than 50 parents and teachers of elementary school students walked out to honor the Parkland victims and highlight the successes and shortcomings of school safety.
In Bigfork, students participating in the walkout were marked with unexcused absences, even if parents called in ahead of time, but had the option to make up their missed work.
At least 200 people participated in the walkout at Capital High School in Helena. Organizers billed it more like a memorial than a protest.
Amanda Penley, a junior at Capital, gave a speech in the school's courtyard.
"We are not here as proponents or opponents of a specific political agenda. In these 17 minutes we all fall under one roof: students," she said.
Penley is a member of Helena Youth Against Gun Violence, which formed after the Parkland shooting.
"I would like to ask you all to remain respectful throughout this memoria," she said." It is important to keep in mind that many of us gathered here are grieving the loss of not only the Parkland students, but also friends or family members lost to gun violence."
After her speech, students read names and short bios of the Parkland victims. They ended with a moment of silence.
Nathan Hartnett, a senior at Capital High walked out and attended the memorial.
"I own firearms. I’ve shot firearms my entire life. I support the Second Amendment," Hartnett said. "I believe everything about the Second Amendment is right. But I still think that it is a broken system. We’ve seen so many tragedies. It needs to be fixed. I’m not saying get rid of AR-15s, I’m saying better education, better background checks. A common understanding of what these firearms are capable of doing."
Hartnett, along with Helena Youth Against Gun Violence, supports advocating for what they call "smart gun" legislation.
Some members of the group want to increase the minimum age to purchase a gun. And some, unlike Hartnett, want to restrict access to semi-automatic and automatic weapons like AR-15s.
But Tanlee Pipinich, also a senior at Capital, says the group’s main focus is education.
"We do own a lot of guns, and there are a lot of gun advocates in Montana. It's more of awareness of how to use those. Like especially hunters education, you're taught how to handle a gun safely, that’s something we’re trying to push for," she said.
Some members of the Helena Youth Against Gun Violence say there needs to be more serious instruction given to students and teachers about what to do if a shooter enters the school.
Others say awareness of gun violence needs to include suicide in Montana too.
Hannah Simonson is a sophomore at Helena High, which also had a walkout Wednesday. She says there has become a routine when one of their peers commits suicide. A teacher reads the class a statement explaining what happened and when. Mental health counseling is offered and there’s a lot of crying.
"It’s like, here, we’re here to help you for about a week after, then it goes back to normal."
Simonson says it should be harder for minors to get guns, or access their parents’ guns. And when a student, or even an adult, is having mental health issues, services to help need to be more available.
Montana has the highest rate of suicide deaths in the country. And according to the state health department, more than 60 percent of those suicides were committed with a gun.
Helena public schools officials told MTPR that it was going to be business as usual in classrooms across the district today, meaning students would be marked with an unexcused absence if they weren’t in class and didn’t have a parent's note.
Tweets from the walkout at Helena High reported hundreds of students walked out of class there.
Students across Helena plan to take part in the March for Our Lives event later this month. A counter protest is expected at the same time under the banner, March For Our Guns.
At Hellgate High School in Missoula, what happened could perhaps be more accurately described as a sit-in than a walkout.
Roughly 200 Hellgate students gathered in the school’s courtyard to quietly honor the 17 people killed last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Florida.
There was no marching, no chanting; only an extended moment of silence lasting nearly 10 minutes.
Students later told me it’s time for a serious conversation about gun violence in America. Seventeen-year-old Miles Luedecke says the issue weighs on him.
"Every time there's a fire alarm now, I actually look around because that’s how the Parkland shooter – he pulled the fire alarm and shot a bunch of kids. Whenever we go to these protests I’m a little nervous because kids have access to guns, and not every kid should have access to guns."
Luedecke supports universal background checks, which advocates say would close what’s sometimes called the private sale loophole. He also questions whether civilians really need access to semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15.
Seventeen-year-old Hellgate student Annie Zavitz also supports more comprehensive background checks, but doesn’t want to take firearms away from law abiding citizens.
"Living in Montana, my neighbors, my friends, my family they own guns and it’s a part of their life. I don’t want to take away a part of their family tradition. But I do want to make it so everyone is ensured safety, whether it be with a gun or without a gun."
Elan West-Badminton is a senior. She opposes calls to allow willing teachers to be trained to carry concealed weapons in school. She says that would be too expensive and risky.
"If you give a teacher — that most likely is not actually trained with guns — a gun, and they’re going against someone who is coming in as a shooter, the likelihood of them actually shooting the shooter is lower than them probably shooting one of their own students on accident."
Senior Molly Gibbons says this campaign won’t end when summer breaks begins.
"We are going to be handing it down to the juniors who will be seniors next year so this can keep it going. We will be hosting events to write letters to our representatives and things like that. Hopefully it won’t die down. Hopefully people will feel passionate about this even when there isn’t a shooting occurring."
The Hellgate students who organized Wednesday’s walkout – or sit in – are also working with the advocacy groups Missoula Rises, and Moms Demand Action for a separate March For Our Lives rally to be held March 24.
Hellgate Principal Judson Miller says he was very pleased with how the students conducted themselves Wednesday, saying no one will be punished for participating.