Between busy class schedules and after-school activities, Central Oregon students continue to lead local protests against gun violence in the wake of the deadly school shooting last month in Florida.
Hundreds of students walked out of class last week at high schools and middle schools across the region, and now a group of Bend High School students are planning a March for Our Lives protest Saturday at Drake Park.
The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 people died Feb. 14 after a gunman opened fire at the Parkland, Florida, campus, launched March for Our Lives to protest gun policies and the prevalence of school shootings.
The shooting led to a huge wave of student activism against gun violence that is leading the national conversation on the subject. More than 830 student-led March for Our Lives protests, including the one in Bend, are scheduled to take place Saturday.
“We are hoping to be the people responsible for making the reaction that creates change,” said Lauren Hough, 18, a senior at Bend High School who helped organize her school’s walkout and is an organizer for Saturday’s march.
Hough said the goal for Saturday is a peaceful protest. Student musicians and speakers will take the stage at the Drake Park amphitheater at 11:30 a.m. and the march will begin at noon through downtown Bend.
It is not an anti-gun protest, but rather a call for common-sense gun control, Hough said.
A national petition on the March for Our Lives website urges lawmakers to pass legislation to ban the sale of assault weapons, such as the AR-15 used by the shooter in Parkland, and prohibit the sale of high-capacity magazines often used in school shootings. In addition, the petition calls for closing the “gun show loophole” that allows guns to be purchased at gun shows or online without conducting a background check on the buyer.
Some Facebook commenters and conservative pundits have criticized the students for being too young to take on such complicated issues or are saying the students are just following what their parents believe.
“I frankly find it really insulting when people either directly or indirectly try to insinuate that you are too young to be involved or too young to have an actual opinion,” Hough said.
Vinna Ottaviano, 16, a junior at Bend High and head organizer of Saturday’s march, said any member of society at any age should be able to have opinions and question social norms.
“If people think we are too young to be doing this, then when do you start?” Ottaviano said.
Organizing the local march is no easy task. The student organizers had to get a city permit to use Drake Park and have been busy promoting the march on social media. A Facebook event lists nearly 2,000 people interested in the march, and an Instagram page has more than 1,500 followers.
All of the work has been inspired by similar efforts in Parkland, Ottaviano said.
“I feel like a lot of it is inspired by the students at Stoneman Douglas,” Ottaviano said. “Because we are seeing people our age who are taking this leap into politics and government. We feel like we’re not the only ones. It’s pretty unifying.”
The student organizers at Bend high said they experienced pushback from the school administration about the walkout event last week. Originally, the students suggested taking 17 minutes of silence to honor the 17 students killed in Florida.
Administrators were skeptical that teenagers could stay silent for 17 minutes, according to the students. Instead, the students decided to gather in the cafeteria for 17 minutes and take turns talking about the Parkland victims and speaking out to support a change in gun laws.
“I think 17 minutes of silence would have gone smoothly as well,” said Emma Smith, 18, a Bend high senior who helped organize the walkout.
Smith, Hough, Ottaviano and other walkout organizers at Bend high said it was a success, but they also felt on edge the rest of the day from other students who disagreed with their efforts. In the school parking lot the day of the walkout, some students sat in trucks with gun stickers on them and revved their engines.
“It’s not any direct threat, but more just a presence that feels threatening,” Hough said.
Bend high has a history of gun-related threats. In February, a 16-year-old boy was arrested on suspicion of planning a shooting. In 2014, a 17-year-old boy committed suicide by shooting himself in a classroom.
Hough said she would like to see people with other opinions hold their own peaceful protests or marches.
“If you want to confront this issue, you can hold something similar,” Hough said. “If people want to organize and do it in a peaceful way, then it doesn’t bother me.”
Although she disagrees, Hough understands that some people see the banning of assault weapons as the government infringing on their Second Amendment rights, she said.
“It’s a general feeling of infringement of government on freedom,” Hough said, “even if they are not personally exercising that specific freedom of owning and using an assault rifle.”
Taking on gun control can feel overwhelming for the students, but they have accepted complexity and feel the protests are a good place to start the conversation. Gabriela Benevento, 16, a junior at Bend high, said she views the protests as more about children being safe at school rather than a gun control debate.
“It’s not a political thing anymore,” Benevento said. “I don’t care what your opinion on gun control is. I don’t want to die at school. Are you going to get mad at me for that? It’s ridiculous that anybody should be afraid to go to school.”
For Smith, she points to a culture of violence and aggression. And there is no simple fix, she said.
“I just think we can pin it down on mentally ill people, but that’s not truthful,” Smith said. “We can pin it down on bullying. Those are all just parts of it. It’s actually just perpetrated by culture, and that’s a hard thing to change.”
On Thursday, students held a sign-making event inside the Liberty Theater in downtown Bend. About two dozen students showed up to create signs for the march. Most of them were from Bend high, but a couple of Pacific Crest Middle School students also attended. The students wrote various messages on white poster board, including “Fear has no place in schools,” “Guns are objects, children are lives,” and “No more gun violence.”
Luka Perle, 17, a junior at Sisters High School, drew a sign that read, “This doesn’t happen in countries with gun control.”
Perle said he is marching Saturday to advocate for gun laws and to add his voice to the thousands expected to march across the country. The march itself may not cause immediate change, he said, but it will let people know how the students feel and, he hopes, lead to compromise with gun advocates and lawmakers.
“There are still ways to work together without having school shootings every couple of weeks,” he said.
— Reporter: 541-617-7820, email@example.com