About 120 students from Montezuma-Cortez High School participated in a well-organized walkout Wednesday to honor those killed in recent school shootings in Florida and Aztec, New Mexico, and to promote a kinder school culture.
Students bowed their heads in silence or lay on the ground as the names of the 17 victims in the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting and two from Aztec High School were read over a loudspeaker.
“I’m proud of all of you for standing up and uniting as a school,” said teacher Chelsea Rodriguez. “The problem of school violence cannot be solved alone; we all need to solve it together.”
Students signed a banner and laid flowers honoring the victims. Rather than debating the politics of gun control, the focus of the event was promoting a positive, more kind school culture as a way to address mental health issues that can lead to violence.
Students were challenged to conduct 17 acts of kindness throughout the day. They were encouraged to reach out to people who they don’t know and offer a compliment, a thank you, or just a friendly hello.
“It was a good idea to have this event. There has been some fear because of what has happened at other schools, so the message is to be kind to people and support each other,” said student Alyssa Cornett.
The message of the day is that “from this day forth, all of us will be kinder and reach out to people having trouble or who are lonely, instead of pushing them aside,” said another student.
Hearing all the names being read off “was devastating,” said another. “It was intense and made it real.”
The Aztec shooting hit close to home, said student Krysten Cox.
“That put the issue in perspective for a lot of us, because you realize it could happen to any school, not just one far away,” she said. “I feel that focusing on mental health issues is a way to improve school safety.”
Added student Daylan Guttridge, “Teaching gun safety and responsibility is needed more. It is a tragedy that students and teachers were harmed in such a way, and shows that act of kindness could have changed it.”
Parent Sarah Collins, of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, was there to support her son, who participated in the walkout.
“We’ve been talking about the issue of school safety. He feels there needs to be more education about gun safety and accountability,” she said.
The event had support from the school’s administrators.
“It gives students a voice,” said Superintendent Lori Haukeness. “One class did an analysis on what improvements are needed for school safety, and that will be presented to the board for review.”
The district has also upgraded safety features of schools, including more cameras, providing radio communication for teachers and a buzzer system entrances for schools.
“One thing we learned from the Aztec shooting was that every teacher had a radio, and that made notification of the danger happen quicker,” Haukeness said. “Now, every teacher has or will have a radio.”
She said a survey on school safety will be sent out to parents as a way to get their feedback.
Southwest Open School in Cortez also participated in the walkout.
According to interim director Matt Keefauver, 12 students and two supervising teachers participated in a march to U.S. Highway 160, where they held signs in support of the movement.
“They made posters and then walked to the highway,” Keefauver said. “People honked their support.”
The nationwide walkout was largely organized on social media by the Women’s March Youth Empower.
Braving snow in New England and threats of discipline in Georgia and Ohio, they carried signs, chanted and bowed their heads in memory of the 17 dead in the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Across the country, students were urged to leave class at 10 a.m. local time for 17 minutes – one minute for each of the dead in Florida.
At some schools, students lined hallways, gathered in gyms or wore orange, the color used by the movement against gun violence, or maroon, the school color at Stoneman Douglas High.