‘Existing in a world of violence since we were born’: Denver students walk out in protest

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Students protest gun violence at the Colorado state Capitol.

Sixteen-year-old Emma Friday walked out because she’s “sick of the violence.”

Fiona Harris, 15, walked out because, she said, “everyone deserves an education. The fact that kids are scared to go to school, there are so many things wrong with that.”

Seamus Klingspor, 14, walked out because “any one of those 17 lives could have been us.”

Those three were among hundreds of Denver students who walked out of their schools Wednesday morning. Students from East High School, Denver School of the Arts, and others converged on the state Capitol steps to chant in protest of gun violence. The walkouts were part of a national action in the wake of last month’s school shooting in Florida that left 17 dead.

Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, came out to briefly address the crowd.

“You look pretty fired up,” he said into a megaphone. “A big part is just the fact you took the initiative to come out here and show up. It’s a big part, but it’s not the only part.

“The thing you’ve got to remember is if you’re really going to succeed – and I have a feeling you might – you’ve got to get involved with getting people elected,” Hickenlooper told the students. “You’ve got to make sure your voices get heard all the time.”

Students began pouring out of East High School at 10 a.m. to meet others who’d walked over from Denver School of the Arts. Some were holding hand lettered signs: “Protect Kids, Not Guns,” one said. “Keep Your Guns Out of My School.” “Am I Next?”

East High students had prepared a program. As the crowd stood reverently in front of the tall brick school building, squinting in the sun, the students spoke about Columbine, noting that most of them weren’t alive yet when that tragedy “devastated our community.”

“We’ve been existing in a world of violence since we were born,” one student said.

A group sang haunting renditions of songs including Stevie Wonder’s “Heaven Help us All.” They recited the names of the 17 victims of the Florida shooting, noting their passions and, most poignantly, their ages: “Jaime Guttenberg. Jaime was a passionate dancer. … Her father described her as vocal, passionate, and energetic. Jaime Guttenberg was 14 years old.”

Police escorted the students down East 16th Avenue toward the state Capitol. On the way there, students sporadically broke out into chants. “Enough is enough!” they shouted as pedestrians took cell phone videos, drivers honked, and construction workers paused to watch.

The chanting continued at the state Capitol.

“What do we want? Change!” they chanted. “When do we want it? Now!”

Shortly after Hickenlooper spoke, the students began heading back to their schools, some on yellow buses. They were done for the day, but several said they weren’t done for good.

“People think students don’t have a voice or a place in politics,” said Friday, who was holding a sign that said, “I’m Missing a Day of School Because 17 are Missing the Rest of Their Lives.”

“But we definitely do.”

Starting young

These 11-year-old Brooklyn students are asking New York City to do something about segregated schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Matilda and Eliza Seki, left, and their friends Noa and Benji Weiss, right, collected signatures at a district 15 meeting to discuss middle school integration efforts.

While they learned about the history of segregation, a group of Brooklyn 11-year-olds took a good look around their classrooms and realized their schools weren’t so different from the photos in their textbooks.

So Matilda and Eliza Seki paired up with their friends Noa and Benji Weiss — two sets of twins — and decided to do something about it. They launched a petition on Change.org calling on the city to integrate its schools.

“We learned about separate and equal in the civil rights movement, and that it was not equal,” Eliza said, referring to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine once used to justify segregation. “And since there are schools with people of only one race, and it’s all separated, it cannot be equal.”

Matilda and Eliza are in the sixth grade at M.S. 839, and Noa and Benji are fifth-graders at P.S. 10. They already have a bit of experience in activism, having joined the Women’s March in D.C., and helping to lead environmental clubs at their school. They hold sophisticated views for kids their age, and are aware of the hurdles ingrained in addressing school segregation.

Describing how housing patterns can tie into school quality, Benji began his thoughts by saying: “Let’s say you’re from a different culture or race and you don’t have as much money as other people do — because we still live in a racist country — and you’re in an area where the housing is cheaper but you don’t have as good schools.”

Across New York City, adults have debated how to spur integration in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated. According to one recent analysis, the city’s most selective high schools enroll 84 percent white and Asian students, even though those groups make up only 30 percent of the city’s student enrollment.

But student-organized groups have also been at the forefront of a grassroots movement for more diverse schools. The work of budding advocates Matilda, Eliza, Noa and Benji caught the attention of some those groups, and they’ve now joined the ranks of Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC as some of the youngest members. The changes they’d like to see go beyond admissions policies, but also include a push for additional resources for underserved schools, hiring more teachers of color and curricula that reflects all students and cultures.

“We decided it was an important issue and we wanted to help fix it,” Noa said.

Matilda added: “Our schools should look like our city.”

Their schools are in District 15, where 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective middle schools, according to an analysis by parents. The city has launched a series of public workshops to craft a new admissions model to integrate middle schools there, but these kids already have their own ideas for how to do that.

Benji, who is heading to middle school next year, said it would be “pretty good” if schools stopped picking students based on criteria such as class grades and attendance. Such “screening” contributes to segregation because of a number of factors — from which elementary schools students attend, to their parents’ ability to navigate the complicated admissions process.  

“It’s… important to learn about different peoples’ backgrounds, and religions, and cultures,” he said. “And also to make sure that all kids, no matter their race, religion or where they live can get the same, good education.”

Raised Voices

Balloons, hearts, and ‘die-ins’: How Colorado students marked National Walkout Day

Students gather at the Colorado State Capitol to protest gun violence. (Melanie Asmar)

Thousands of students across Colorado poured out of their schools Wednesday to protest gun violence and to remember 17 victims of last month’s deadly shooting in Florida. Chalkbeat’s Melanie Asmar walked with students from East High School to the Colorado State Capitol, where Gov. John Hickenlooper and Speaker of the House Cristanta Duran urged them to remain politically active.

The protests took different forms at other schools – and not everyone wanted the event to be political. There were balloon releases, voter registration drives, and public “die-ins” at major intersections. And in one Denver area school district, a surge of threats cast a pall over events.

Here’s a look at #NationalWalkoutDay from around the region.

Students at Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver marched in silent solidarity.

In Colorado, teenagers can register to vote before their 18th birthday.

At schools in the Adams 12 district north of Denver, a big uptick in threats the night before – and a warning letter from the superintendent – led many students to skip school altogether.

Students at McAuliffe International School in northeast Denver spoke with their shirts. Instead of “Thoughts & Prayers,” they asked for “Policy & Change.”

But their event was not all about politics. They formed a heart with their bodies and read the names of the dead.

At Jefferson Jr./Sr. High School, students promised to work to change school culture.

Many schools released balloons to honor the victims and found other ways to advocate for change.

Unlike some Colorado districts, St. Vrain didn’t officially condone the walkouts, but students at Longmont schools walked out anyway.

Students at Denver’s South High School have been vocal about gun violence. In a recent visit from U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, they rejected the idea that armed teachers would make them safer and demanded that lawmakers do more.

Students from one of Colorado’s KIPP charter schools used their bodies to send a message at a major intersection in west Denver.

Students of color in Denver reminded the public that gun violence is not limited to mass shootings.

Students aren’t just marching. They’re also writing their representatives. State Rep. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat, tweeted a picture of her inbox full of emails from students.

Colorado carries the legacy of the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School, where a memorial asks urgently as ever: “How have things changed; what have we learned?”