Fewer than 40 students turned out to a rally and march in Bakersfield Friday to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre and urge lawmakers to impose more restrictive legislation for gun ownership.
Those teens — a minute fraction of Kern High School District's 37,000 students — walked out of high school classrooms at 10 a.m., then met in the afternoon at Central Park at Mill Creek for a rally and march to the Liberty Bell at Kern County Superior Court.
They stood for 13 minutes of silence, one minute for each of those killed at Columbine High School in 1999.
“This is about being able to attend school without having to worry if we’ll be the next mass shooting on national television,” Foothill High School student Fatima Siordia said.
Highland High School protest organizer Jackson Opie and others urged students to register to vote and go to the polls this year to vote out House Majority Kevin McCarthy, who accepts NRA campaign contributions, and Sheriff Donny Youngblood, who made headlines recently after suggesting that it’s cheaper for the county if officers kill a suspect rather than wound them.
“We’re not just dumb kids,” Opie said, highlighting the power of youth voice before using a teenage colloquialism to describe being enlightened. “We’re woke.”
The rally was part of a national day of protest that drew from the anger that came from a Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. last month that killed 17 people and wounded 17 others.
Students spoke about the need for federal legislation to require background checks and waiting periods for those purchasing firearms, both of which are have been enshrined in California state law for years.
Opie was one of two students who walked out at Highland High Friday morning for the protest. About another dozen left campus at 10 a.m., but campus safety officers said they suspected they left “to celebrate 420,” the annual marijuana smoke-out, and that they “would be back by lunch time.”
Highland Principal Debra Vigstrom said that while she values students’ right to protest important issues, she worries about the frequency of the recent demonstrations and whether it’s entirely student-led.
“I love student activism. It’s our First Amendment right, and not to be taken lightly, but I’m passionate about education,” Vigstrom said, questioning why the protests have been taking place during school hours, instead of in the afternoons once class has ended. “You can never take away an education. The best students are staying in class to get their education because … it’s the great leveler.”
She sent an email to her staff warning them of student walk-outs, instructing them to encourage students to attend class, but to also maintain a safe environment for students wanting to leave campus.
She also questioned whether adults were setting the agenda, and students were idly following.
“This deeply saddens me. Not because students shed their rights to peaceful protest at the schoolhouse doors … but because adults, members of our community, are sending the message that education does not matter, that what we do is not important, urgent or vitalm,” Vigstrom wrote in an email to staff Friday morning. “If you consider life expectancy, the ability to earn a decent wage, health care, and other quality of life indicators, education IS a matter of life or death.”
Opie asserted Friday that the protest occurring in the streets was a critical part of the education process — one that can’t be contained in a classroom.