Petaluma students protest in support of gun control

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Nearly 2,000 Petaluma students from at least a dozen schools walked out of their classrooms Wednesday as part of a nationwide protest to promote school safety and condemn gun violence.

All walkouts were peaceful, and early estimates showed that about 1,970 students participated in the 10 a.m. action, campus administrators said. Students from Casa Grande, St. Vincent de Paul, Sonoma Mountain, San Antonio Carpe Diem and Petaluma high schools; Kenilworth, Crossroads and Petaluma junior high schools; Live Oak Charter School; McKinley Elementary School and Mary Collins School took part, though numbers for participation were not available for some of those campuses.

The #Enough National School Walkout, which took place a month after a high school shooting that claimed 17 lives in a Parkland, Florida, was under the umbrella of the national Women’s March Youth EMPOWER movement. The 17-minute event was intended as an outlet for students to call attention to gun violence and honor lives lost at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

For 15-year-old Petaluma High School sophomore Lily Paschoal, whose cousin sheltered in the rooms of the Florida high school as a 19-year-old gunman used an AR-15-style semi automatic rifle to kill 14 students and three staff members, the walkout was a poignant and emotional moment.

“We need to keep doing stuff like this and work as a community to make a difference,” she said as tears streamed down her face. “We need stronger gun control.”

Bridget Sisemore, a 15-year-old Petaluma high sophomore, said the event marked a moment of remembrance.

“I felt a little sad about the shooting, it’s hard to look back but it’s worth it,” she said. “You have to remember all the good people in the world. I’m hoping it doesn’t ever happen again.”

Petaluma high freshman Brandon Grunt, 15, said that while he generally feels safe on campus, he would like to see his school bolster its safety protocols, including more frequent drills or pamphlets with safety information and exit routes disseminated to students.

“I want to raise awareness ... and show that people care and that students care,” he said.

A small group of students, including Tallulah Lefkowitz, organized an event at Petaluma High School with speakers from the Petaluma Police Department and the Petaluma-based Metta Center for Nonviolence after the walkout. The 17-year-old sophomore hoped to expose her peers to the myriad of ways to make their voices heard, from registering to vote to interacting with public safety officials to participating in a March 24 March for Our Lives anti-gun violence rally in Santa Rosa.

“I think that students are realizing they do have a voice,” she said. “It’s not that we’re told we don’t have a voice, but we’re raised not to have a voice and to always listen to whoever may be a superior. That’s great, we do need to listen, but we need to have a voice.”

Lefkowitz, who also recruited 32 students to register to vote during the walkout, will spread her message as a speaker at the upcoming rally in Santa Rosa’s Courthouse Square. She’s advocating for tighter federal restrictions on guns, including raising the age limit for gun ownership and banning assault rifles and bump stocks, which make guns into higher powered weapons.

“I’m walking away excited,” she said. “But still it’s obvious that nothing is done yet –it’s not done at all … I’m still apprehensive.”

Petaluma High School Principal David Stirrat estimated that about 500 of the 1,300 student body participated, and at least six staff members were also outside of classrooms. Science teacher Linda Judah was selling bright orange #NeverAgain shirts, a prominent hashtag linked to the student-led gun control movement.

Stirrat said fourth period ended at 10 a.m., as the walkout began, and staff would be keeping track of students not in class for safety reasons but would consider making absences on a case-by-case basis as the next period began at 10:30 a.m.

“Staff are directly connected to this – three of the people killed in Parkland were staff members and we’re fairly united in the idea today from a student perspective of trying to unite around school safety rather than solve the second amendment issue,” he said. “Every student and staff member has a right to come to a safe place.”

He said there have been no credible threats of violence on campus. He encouraged students to be aware of the power of their individual and collective voices.

“It’s time for the (students) to take the mantle of leadership from, frankly, a national Congress that’s been fairly silent and intractable on issues like this. It’s a great time for kids to get active and think about their own futures,” he said.

In a blog on the Petaluma City Schools website, Superintendent Gary Callahan underscored the districts’ desire to “show students that they do have a role to play in the democratic process.”

“Students who choose to participate in the protest will be marked absent during the period of the time they are not in class,” he wrote. “If there are no education code violations (e.g. vandalism, harassment) no disciplinary consequences will be issued. Site and district administrative staff will ensure supervision of any peaceful protest. Teachers with classes will remain in class and continue teaching those not participating. Students will be responsible for any classwork missed during any school day demonstration.”

Petaluma City Schools’ Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Dave Rose said the district intended to remain neutral amid the ongoing national controversy.

“We’re not going to take a political position and we’re going to treat it like any other day,” he said.

Petaluma Police Lt. Ron Klein said his department is working closely with the school district to ensure safety.

“Today, you took respectful, peaceful action, which is really the key to how we’re going to solve this problem with violence in schools, violence in the workplace and violence across the country,” he told a group of more than 100 students gathered at Petaluma High School after the walkout.

All 100 middle school students at Live Oak Charter School participated in a walkout along with many of the teachers. Students carried signs and flowers and marched down to East Washington Street and back.

At the Catholic St. Vincent de Paul High School, the entire 240-student body participated in a prayer service to honor those killed in the Florida mass shooting. Students and teachers left their classrooms and gathered to hear a talk from a St. Vincent student who lost a friend in the Parkland shooting, followed by a prayer and candlelit vigil. Students lit 20 candles – 17 for the victims of the Parkland shooting and three for those who died in last week’s shooting at the Yountville veteran’s home.

“We wanted to focus on those who lost their lives,” said Claudia Thompson, the vice principal.

(Argus-Courier editor Matt Brown contributed to this report.)

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