Hundreds of students across Palo Alto walked out of school on Wednesday morning to call for stricter gun-control measures, joining a national wave of student activism sparked by the survivors of a school shooting in Florida last month.
Students from Palo Alto High School and Castilleja School joined parents and community members in a large protest outside Paly on El Camino Real shortly after 10 a.m. Independent walkouts were held at Juana Briones Elementary School, Addison Elementary School, Jordan Middle School and JLS Middle School as well as Palo Alto private schools including The Girls' Middle School, St. Elizabeth Seton School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Stanford University and Foothill College students also held rallies on their campuses.
At Gunn High School, students participated in a moment of silence on campus and then hundreds joined an inter-school walkout with other local students that ended at El Camino Park in Palo Alto. Police estimated that about 1,500 students participated in that demonstration.
Across the country, the walkout lasted for 17 minutes — one for each student and teacher killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School one month ago today in Parkland, Florida. The event was organized by Women's March, a national activism organization.
At Paly, students held signs with messages like "fear has no place in schools," "protect people not guns," and simply, "Enough."
Attendees said they were calling for expanded background checks, a mandatory wait period for gun purchases and a federal ban of assault weapons. A flyer prepared by the Palo Alto Council of PTAs offered a script for calling federal legislators to ask for these changes, paired with a list of local representatives and their offices' phone numbers.
In California, assault weapons as defined under state law are already prohibited, with limited exceptions. California also requires anyone who wants to purchase a gun to submit an application through a licensed dealer to the federal Department of Justice, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Federal law requires federally licensed firearms dealers — but not private sellers — to initiate a background check before selling a gun.
On Wednesday, Atherton resident Laura Daschbach Pitchford, whose sister was killed in a mass shooting in Seal Beach in 2011, noted to the crowd numerous local connections to gun violence, from a Sacred Heart Preparatory graduate who was fatally shot in Oakland in 2013 to a Saint Francis High School alumna who was killed at a veterans' home in Yountville last week.
"This is not Parkland. This is Palo Alto, Atherton, Mountain View, Pleasanton -- right here in our community," she said. "Let's push Congress to do what is right: to pass sensible gun laws to ensure we are safe from gun violence."
Student speakers urged their peers to continue their advocacy beyond one 17-minute protest.
"We can't let this just be a moment in a history textbook that's a footnote," said Castilleja senior Lucy Carlson, who helped organize the walkout.
She said in an interview before the protest that interested Castilleja students have been working to inform themselves about relevant laws and issues to prepare for a next step of advocating for legislative changes. The school held opt-in discussion groups, facilitated by teachers, during lunch last Friday to talk about youth activism, gun violence, the Second Amendment and other topics.
The Castilleja and Palo Alto school district administrations said they did not sanction a walkout but supported the students' right to protest. Some schools adjusted bell schedules to accommodate the demonstration, including at Paly, and students who miss tests or quizzes will be allowed to retake them for full credit. Palo Alto Unified students who arrived late to classes after the walkout on Wednesday would be marked absent, interim Superintendent Karen Hendricks and high school leadership wrote in a message to students and parents on Tuesday.
"Although neither the schools nor the district can legally sanction a walkout, we applaud our students' commitment to be on the forefront of driving social change on this topic and we support our students," they wrote.
They noted that the district is "obligated by law to take attendance; noting that a student has arrived tardy to class is a consequence of leaving an otherwise scheduled class, but it is not considered a punitive measure."
At the district's elementary schools, parents were permitted to sign their children out for the walkout. Hendricks cautioned in a message last week that participation for younger students "may increase the sense of fear and anxiety and would create additional safety concerns in ensuring sufficient supervision."
Juana Briones parent Lama Rimawi planned to participate with her children, who are 7 and 9 years old. She said elementary school students, despite their age, are well aware of school shootings when they occur.
"Just last week my first-grader said, 'I am scared that a shooter will come to our school because that is what happened at the other school,'" Rimawi said. "I think that empowering the children and making them feel that they can do something is a powerful coping tool."
After the Paly protest ended and most students had returned to class, a sole dissenting voice stayed. Junior Tucker Biorn stood in front of his truck, adorned with a large American flag and a white flag with the text "come and take it," a slogan from the 1835 Texas Revolution that gun-rights proponents have adopted as their own.
He told a group of student journalists that he brought the flags to defend the Second Amendment and his right to express an opposing view. As a conservative student, he said he feels "alienated" when political discussions and protests happen on campus.
Biorn said he supports President Donald Trump's controversial proposal to arm some teachers, as long as they're trained and meet specific requirements. But in a Feb. 23 statement, the president of the California Teachers Association called it a "misguided and dangerously flawed idea" and suggested instead rigorous reviews of schools' safety plans for responding to active shooters.
The night before the protest, the school district's Board of Education passed a resolution to lobby state and federal legislators to "take immediate action to enact meaningful gun-control legislation to prevent even one more child from being harmed by gunfire." The board voted 4-0 to approve the resolution, with Trustee Todd Collins abstaining.
Middle school students at St. Elizabeth Seton also took part in their own walkout Wednesday morning.
"We just wanted to make a statement," said seventh-grader Camila Escodebo. "We don't feel safe in our schools anymore because of what's happening, and (we think) that they should change the gun laws so that we can feel safer."
Students met just before 10 a.m. in the school's gym, where they were first led in a prayer by eighth-grader Marie Rossiter. They then exited the school and walked from the campus on Channing Avenue towards Middlefield Road, eventually looping back towards the school.
"In history class, we were talking about how these shootings were happening, and I heard about them on the news," Rossiter said they discussed shootings in history class and other students suggested participating in a walkout as a way to stand in solidarity with the students of Stoneman Douglas and other victims of school shootings.
The walkout was sanctioned by the Bishop Patrick McGrath of the Diocese of San Jose, according to Elizabeth Cauley, a Seton social studies teacher, but "the students took ownership of it and started planning it for themselves."
During the walkout, which lasted about 30 minutes, students held handmade signs that read "#NeverAgain" and "#EnoughIsEnough" alongside photographs of victims of past shootings, including at Stoneman Douglas and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. They chanted various slogans, including "Not One More," and "Never Again."
"I'm really proud of our students for participating, and they really took it seriously," Seton Principal Evelyn Rosa said. "I think by us giving them the opportunity, empowering them, I think it makes a difference. I think it's something that they'll never forget, honestly."
Carolyne Wong, a math and technology teacher at Seton, said that the students' participation gave her "hope for the future." A large part of the community at Seton is comprised of immigrants who sometimes don't feel comfortable speaking up, but the walkout gave them a chance to raise their voices.
She added that as a principal, security is one of her biggest concerns.
"We have to do something about it," she said. "We can't just sit back."
Editorial Intern Sarah Klearman contributed to this report.