By Allison Jarrell, Special to the Independent
Laguna Beach High School students found themselves torn between two options for participating in Wednesday’s nationwide walkout to protest gun violence—stay in the school’s quad and take part in an organized break period, or march out of the school and join a more politically-charged peaceful protest at the corner of Park Avenue.
While the majority of students opted for the first option—some out of fear of punishment—about two dozen students ended up walking out of the school and joining a group of parents holding signs like, “NRA Kills Our Kids,” “Protect Kids Not Guns,” “Times Have Changed, Guns Have Changed,” “We Call BS,” and “Never Again! Our Voices Louder Than Guns.”
The national school walkout took place from 10 a.m. to 10:17 a.m. on March 14, marking one month since a 19-year-old gunman killed 14 students and three faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
The reaction to the horrific shooting was felt throughout the country, including in Laguna Beach. At a recent public meeting, Police Chief Laura Farinella spoke about a detective’s assignment with the school district and the department’s participation in active shooter trainings.
Farinella also encouraged people to report something out of the ordinary.
“I will tell you here in this county, when people do that, we act on it immediately,” she said.
On Feb. 13, the school board approved its 2018-2019 Comprehensive School Safety Plan, which includes preparing for and responding to an active shooter scenario.
Neither police nor school administrators could estimate the number of instances when school lockdowns have occurred. None have taken place in the current school year.
In the wake of the Parkland shooting, police were asked to participate in future school safety committee meetings, spokeswoman Leisa Winston said. “When an incident like Parkland occurs, we debrief the situation to examine any lessons learned and how we might revise our plans.”
Laguna Beach was one of many school districts nationwide that organized an alternative to the national walkout, which district officials referred to as “supervised remembrance activities.” Superintendent Jason Viloria sent an email to parents and students last week advising students that participation would not provoke discipline if activities remain peaceful and respectful, they stay on campus, do not exceed the break period, return to class when instructed and stay in “designated areas on campus.”
The email caused some confusion among students and parents over whether exiting the building rather than partaking in the school’s planned activities in the quad would be subject to truancy. Viloria’s email stated that students who chose to “leave campus or not return to class after the break” would be “subject to a period truancy.”
Of the students who joined the walkout Wednesday morning, at least six were under the impression that they would be marked truant for their actions.
Juniors Jordan Glick, 16, and Iris Sewell, 17, were two of the first students to join the group of parents at the corner of Park Avenue. Both thought they would be punished for walking out.
“Laguna Beach High School has tried to stop us from protesting and leaving campus,” Sewell said. “They’ve twisted the 17-minute walkout into a 17-minute free period where we can do what we like.
“I’m infuriated by it,” Sewell continued, standing shoulder to shoulder with fellow protestors. “I’m protesting what the school is saying as well as what the NRA is doing.”
“It should be that the school is proud that we have the knowledge to come out here and talk about such controversial subjects…but instead they’re trying to make sure that we don’t,” Glick said. “I wish everyone was out here, because the more people, the louder it gets.”
Brittain Sammons, a 17-year-old junior, said she wasn’t concerned about truancies.
“That’s the least of my worries,” Sammons said. “This is the real problem. This is what we need to be worrying about—people dying—not a truancy that I’ll get in high school.”
When asked why the walkout was important to her, Sammons choked back tears as she spoke of the “innocent kids” who died in Parkland.
“I just see these videos of these kids…I just could never, I could never imagine that,” she said fighting sobs. “We need these people to step up and keep talking about the lives that are being lost, or else nothing is going to change.”
Despite the ramifications that some students and parents expected, Connie Byrnes, LBHS campus supervisor, said students would not be given truancies for walking out and standing at the street corner, since the sidewalk is still considered part of the school’s campus. Byrnes said all students were allowed to exit the building and walk around, just as they are with any other regular break.
As dozens of students and parents stood outside with signs and garnered supportive honks from passersby, Byrnes said students who chose to remain in the quad were able to participate in a one-minute moment of silence and were also able to talk to counselors or write their thoughts down on post-it notes, which were then placed on large poster boards throughout the quad.
Junior Logan Ledger was one of the students who opted to stay in the quad area. Ledger said she wanted to avoid a potential truancy, and she also didn’t agree with some of the political views associated with the walkout.
“The purpose of the walkout itself is circulating between support for fellow peers who had lost their lives in the shooting, and gun control, yet no one can give a solid answer as to which it is actually supporting,” Ledger said prior to the walkout. “Either way, I am not walking out because I am a student-athlete, and I cannot afford to receive a truancy and not be allowed to compete. If that were not the case, I would walk to support children my age who lost their friends in a terrible event, but not the latter.”
A few students did decide to stay at the corner after the allotted 17 minutes. Sammons said she had a free period following the break, but sophomore Charlie Besso, 15, and junior Hanna Hardie, 17, said they were missing their next period and would receive truancies for staying.
“A protest should be taking a stand, even if you have to face consequences to show that you don’t agree with what’s going on,” Besso said.
“We’re just holding signs, but hopefully in the long run, that does something,” Hardie said. “I wanted to make a stand.”