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‘Enough is enough’: Anchorage high school students leave classes as part of nationwide protest over gun violence

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: April 21, 2018
  • Published April 20, 2018

When Anchorage high school junior Erika Andersen came home from school Feb. 14, she said, she turned on the TV and watched newscasts about the shooting that day at a Florida high school that left 17 people dead. She watched students walking out of that school in a chain, with their hands on the shoulders of the students in front of them. Those teenagers looked just like her, just like her friends, just like her classmates. It broke her heart, she said. She hugged her mom.

"One thing that made me feel sick to my stomach was that I was so upset but not at all surprised that this had happened once again," Andersen, 16, told about 200 students outside South High on Friday morning. A white banner that said "#NEVERAGAIN" in green letters lay at her feet.

"After the sadness had subsided, it quickly transformed into a different emotion," she said. "I was angry."

On Friday her voice joined a chorus of hundreds of students across Anchorage, and thousands of young people across the nation, demanding stricter gun control laws on the 19th anniversary of the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. The demonstrations were part of the National School Walkout, the latest demonstration in a swell of student-led activism since the deadly Florida high school shooting.

"I think we're on the right side of history," said Dimond High sophomore Kai Crawford, who helped organize the walkout at her school.

Students at every Anchorage high school organized some sort of event Friday. Most of them cannot vote, and they said they want their voices heard.

At Service High, students organized a panel discussion with district administrators and a police officer so their peers could ask questions about school safety. They wanted to have a proactive conversation, said Dieuleveut Biringanine, Service High student body president.

"This is not about politics, we're talking about lives," said Biringanine, 18.

At Bartlett High, about 400 students participated in a sit-in led by Madison Xiong, a 16-year-old junior. There were speeches and students signed an orange poster that said "Enough is Enough."

"Throughout my life I've seen the same headline what feels like hundreds of times, it's 'Another school shooting' or 'The worst mass shooting in U.S. history,' " Xiong said. "You just get this feeling of numbness after a while."

Students sign the Enough is Enough poster after the speaker portion of the sit-in program. Around 400 students participated at Bartlett High School Friday morning, April 20, 2018 as part of the National School Walkout. (Anne Raup / ADN)

She said she's ready for change, and she's glad her generation seems to be leading the charge. Like Andersen, she said, in the aftermath of Florida school shooting she became more of an activist. Last month, she was one of hundreds of thousands of protesters at the March for Our Lives event in Washington, D.C., calling for tougher gun control laws and action against gun violence.

"This whole movement is not about taking away the Second Amendment, and it's not about banning every single gun," Xiong said. "It's about making America a safer place to be for me as a student and for every moviegoer and anybody going to church because all of these places are now susceptible to gun violence as we've seen throughout the years."

At both East High and West High, roughly 200 students walked out of their classes at 10 a.m. and listened to speakers. Some had signs with messages including "Grants not guns"; "I am stronger than fear"; and "We will not be silenced."

At East, students chanted "End gun violence, no more silence"; "Love not hate, we just want to graduate"; and "Leroy Leroy Leroy," in commemoration of Leroy Lawrence, their classmate who got caught in crossfire last year as he walked to a friend's house. He was hit by a bullet and died days later in the hospital.

At Eagle River High, principal Marty Lang said about 45 students walked out, with a "low-key" demonstration held outside the school.

While hundreds of Anchorage students took part in demonstrations during part of their school days Friday, hundreds more stayed in class. They have a lot of different views, said one student at Service High.

Anchorage School District officials said students who missed class Friday without permission from parents will receive an unexcused absence. The students must make up the work missed, but will not face additional repercussions such as detention.

Small clusters of pro-gun advocates protested outside South High, Dimond High and Chugiak High on Friday morning. Alaska has the highest rate of gun ownership in the U.S.

The protests remained largely peaceful.

At Dimond High, KTUU reported, students chanted, "Donald Trump" and "USA" and one student yelled, "Don't take my guns."

A largely subdued demonstration at Chugiak High briefly turned contentious when a small group of counterprotesters engaged organizers in a debate and one of them, freshman Patrick Spanos, had his phone taken away by the principal. The principal said it was to protect students' privacy.

Anthony Spanos, a junior, said he and his brother are strong supporters of the Second Amendment, and he thinks the best way to curb gun violence and mass shootings is to eliminate "gun-free" zones.

"If you're someone who is going to commit an act of violence, you're not going to pick someone who can fight back," he said.

At South, a group of about 10 students quietly held yellow flags that said "Don't tread on me" and signs that said "Uphold the 2nd amendment" and "If the government won't trust me with my guns, I don't trust them with theirs."

"We have the right to own guns and be able to defend ourselves," said Mariah Juarez, a junior.

Juarez said she supported gun control measures that would keep guns away from those who are mentally unstable, so there "aren't just some whack-jobs out there owning a semi-automatic," but she didn't want any sort of gun reforms to go too far.

She later walked over and shook hands with Andersen and the other three students who helped organize the walkout.

Junior ROTC teacher Vern Randall hugs student organizer Madison Xiong after the program at Bartlett. Randall said to Xiong, “I served 24 years so you could do this.” Around 400 students participated in the sit-in at Bartlett High School Friday morning as part of the National School Walkout. (Anne Raup / ADN)

At the end of her speech Friday, Andersen encouraged her classmates to keep pushing for change until no child dies at the hands of a school shooter.

"Today, we remind our representatives that we are their children and we have the right to speak about issues that are affecting us, issues that are taking our lives while we are trying to get an education that will create the future of this country," she said.

"Please do not stay silent."

Alaska Star Editor Matt Tunseth and ADN Visuals Editor Anne Raup contributed to this report.