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Students stage walkouts at Grand Forks high schools

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Grand Forks Central student Savannah King, holding sign, and other students hold a silent protest in support of recent victims of school shootings in the United States. Event organizer Maia Jackson is at left and Alissa Mondry is at right. (Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)3 / 5
From right: Ashley Combs, a Red River High School junior, speaks to a gathered group of about 50 students at her school during a Wednesday walkout to protest gun violence. At her side are fellow students Paige McPherson, Ella Zhang and Simi Kaur. (Photo by Sam Easter/Grand Forks Herald)4 / 5
Students at Wednesday's gun violence walkout at Red River High School listen as walkout leaders advocate for stricter gun laws. (Herald photo/Sam Easter)5 / 5

Kacy Jiran, a senior at Grand Forks Central High School, used to think that “my voice -- my one voice -- would not make a difference,” she told classmates gathered outside the school Wednesday morning.

“We can’t vote yet. We have little or no say in what happens,” she said. “But our voices will matter, and they will matter soon.”  

Jiran was among dozens of Grand Forks students gathered outside their high schools Wednesday to remember those who died in a recent school shooting in Florida and to call on lawmakers to act to prevent gun violence in public places.

“Our very lives are at risk when we go to school, and school should be a safe place,” Jiran said. “It’s so hard to learn if you fear for your life.”    

About 60 students at each of the high schools, Grand Forks Central and Red River, walked out of class at 10 a.m. Wednesday, as part of a student-led nationwide campaign.

The event marked one month after a shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school where 17 people were killed and 17 injured.

Some students also walked out of Grand Forks middle schools, also at 10 a.m., according to school district officials. At Valley, 65 walked out; at South, 14, and at Schroeder, 8.

At East Grand Forks Senior High, at 9:50 a.m. over the intercom, Principal Brian Loer invited students to the gym at 10 a.m. if they wanted to have a discussion about the school shooting in Florida and how to make their school safer.

He hadn’t heard of any plans for a student-led walkout, he said.

“About 125 kids attended,” the gathering in the gym, Loer said.

“I was very, very impressed with the maturity and skill” of students who spoke, he said. “We had a very good conversation. I’m super proud of all of them.”

He intended for the conversation to last 17 minutes, in honor of the victims at Parkland, but it lasted 45 minutes, he said, and included discussion on how to improve school climate and the importance of not bullying “and being nice to each other.”

Grand Forks Central Principal Buck Kasowski said, too, that he was “very proud” of how the students conducted themselves during the walkout there.

“All of the students who participated today were very respectful and courteous to others with different points of view,” he said. “There was little disturbance in leaving the building and coming back in.”          

‘Really angry’

At Central High School, four students spoke. Speakers noted that not everyone holds the same point of view regarding guns, but it’s crucial they express their opinions to political leaders.

The walkout could be viewed as “political,” but it is “bipartisan,” said Maia Jackson, senior and an organizer. “Young people want politicians to listen to them.”         

“I am really angry about things I see,” said Jiran. “Our safety is too important to be put on the back burner.”

Megan Hanson, a senior, said, “We are not standing here as ‘anti-gun.’ We are standing here as ‘anti-gun violence.’ ”

Some students were wrapped in the U.S. flag and wore National Rifle Association symbols, but the event was peaceful and no shouting or confrontations occurred.

At Red River, some students carried signs that read, “No more excuses” and “No more blood money.”

“Today, we come together as students demanding change,” said Ashley Combs, a junior. “We come together as activists demanding a better future.”    

“We have been told to sit down and watch adults do nothing about our problems for too long,” Combs said. “It is our turn.”

As students “we have our differences, but we all have the same fear: On any given day, a person could walk in these doors and start shooting,” she said.  

Red River High School Principal Kris Arason said, “I think our students that wanted their voices heard did that today. … I think they did a nice job with what they wanted to do.”

He said students had explained their walkout plan to administrators and executed the walkout as they said they would.

‘Just so sad’

Jolly Sherwood, a retired first-grade teacher, was among about a dozen community members who stood in support of the students at Red River, where her husband is an instructor.

Sherwood was at home when the Parkland tragedy occurred, she said.

“It was just so sad. It made you sad, it made you angry, frustrated that it keeps happening,” she said. “I cried. When my husband left for school the next day, I cried. Just worrying.”

Bill Higdon, of Grand Forks, a former teacher and school administrator, was among the crowd that gathered outside Central.

“I’m here because I’m wanting to support these young people who are leading the way to sensible gun control,” he said. “It’s absolutely ridiculous that we do not have sensible gun control.”

“I am in favor of the Second Amendment, but it is not a complete laissez-faire. It had to do with the militia,” Higdon said.

“These students are bright, smart, engaged -- and we need to support them.”

Detention

Students who did not have parents’ permission to leave school will receive detention, said Grand Forks Superintendent Larry Nybladh.

Information on attendance procedures was sent to parents in an email Friday, he said.

“The school district has tried its best to balance the students’ First Amendment rights with the requirements under law,” Nybladh said. “I think we were successful in doing that.”

Nybladh, who observed the Red River walkout, complimented students on their behavior.

“They exercised their rights in a very orderly and appropriate manner,” he said.

Arason said about 50 parents had called to excuse students for the walkout.

Jackson told the crowd at Central, “We’ll all be in detention tomorrow at 7 a.m.”

Earlier she said that “learning goes beyond books” and, by walking out of class, “we’re being a little bit civilly disobedient. (But) the school district should be uplifting voices of students -- especially on something like school safety.”

Herald writer Sam Easter contributed to this report.

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