Student walkout spurs debate on gun violence

Monday, April 23, 2018 - 08:03
  • Chugiak High students gather around the school’s flagpole for a demonstration held in conjunction with the National School Walkout, a nationwide event against gun violence that coincided with the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado. (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)
  • Chugiak High students gather around the school’s flagpole for a demonstration held in conjunction with the National School Walkout, a nationwide event against gun violence that coincided with the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado. (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)

A nationwide debate about gun violence arrived Friday at Chugiak High, where opinions about guns are as varied as the rugged terrain surrounding the Anchorage School District’s least urban high school.

Despite strong differences of opinion, organizers of a Friday morning school walkout deemed the event a success.

“We came out here today to show solidarity and support for all the people who have lost their lives to gun violence and just to really rally support and show that youth care about the future,” said Emily Walden, a senior who was among a loose group of about 10 student organizers.

Part of the National School Walkout against gun violence, the event featured speeches from student organizers and a moment of silence in remembrance of the 13 victims of the Columbine High School massacre, which took place on April 20, 1999.

Enthusiasm was high among participants, who carried signs with messages of peace and nonviolence and spoke about the need to keep gun violence in the national consciousness.

“The little things add up, and that’s how change happens,” Walden said to her classmates during the 20-minute walkout.

“WE’RE JUST SO DESENSITIZED”

At 10:20 a.m., about 200 students streamed out of the school and gathered around the flagpole outside beneath breaks in the overcast sky and in the shadow of the nearby Chugach Mountains. Some carried signs denouncing gun violence, others gathered in small groups to talk about the issues.

The event was sanctioned by school administrators, who were on hand to make sure students didn’t leave the designated protest area. Junior Anna Hoffman said organizers worked with administrators to ensure the demonstration didn’t cause a major disruption to the school day.

“There were still classes going on and there were still students who didn’t want to participate in this and you don’t want to take away from their education, that was a big thing and I wanted to make sure people knew that,” Hoffman said.

Students at all eight Anchorage School District high schools participated in the walkouts, with varying degrees of conflict between students.

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

At Eagle River High, principal Marty Lang said about 45 students walked out, with a “low-key” demonstration held outside the school. Things got more heated at other schools, where counter-protesters turned up to express pro-gun viewpoints.

Hoffman said organizers were careful not to frame the debate as anti-gun. Like many of her peers at Chugiak, she said she grew up around guns and isn’t against gun ownership. Instead, she wants to see those in positions of power take a harder look at what can be done to curb gun violence.

“We’re just so desensitized to school shootings and gun violence as a whole,” she said. “I’m not here for gun reform per se, but definitely action looking into how to keep guns from people who are mentally unstable from being able to hurt people.”

She said she hopes politicians across the country take notice of the massive nationwide event.

“We don’t have government talking about it and I think it’s a thing we need to have them talking about, and I really hope these protests that are happening nationwide are going to show them this is a problem and we should visit it,” she said.

Another protest leader, Sarah Copper, said there were some students who took the protest to be anti-gun.

“It is Chugiak,” she said. “But I think we’re framing it as this is not about one issue of gun control, this is about protecting our students, protecting ourselves.”

Copper, a member of the school’s Gay/Straight Alliance. said it was key for organizers to bring students from numerous backgrounds together for the protest.

“I thought it was really important because we wanted to bring together a lot of different demographics for this because it’s such a big movement, to show we’re able to stand together.”

ANOTHER SIDE

The largely quiet demonstration briefly turned contentious when a dozen or so counter-protesters engaged organizers in a debate. Two brothers — Anthony and Patrick Spanos — led the counter-demonstration, with Anthony attempting to debate event organizers and Patrick filming and taking photos.

The brothers’ actions were interrupted by Chugiak principal Megan Hatswell, who confiscated Patrick Spanos’s phone and digital camera and told him he couldn’t post photos and videos from the event online.

Later, Hatswell explained that the Spanos brothers (Anthony is a junior and Patrick is a freshman) did not have signed media releases from their fellow students, and one of the students objected to having their image posted on social media.

“That was to protect the privacy of the other students,” she said. “They were getting into a heated conversation and video was being made. No student has the right to video another student with the potential of possibly posting it without that other student’s consent, and the student had said to me also that they didn’t want the video on there.”

Although Chugiak students routinely film and post videos taken during school hours, Hatswell explained such issues are handled on a case-by-case basis.

“If it’s a group of kids in the cafeteria all Snapchatting together and they’re all aware of it and it’s not something that’s a disruption, that’s entirely different than someone taking video of a teacher teaching or a student in the bathroom or something where someone feels violated,” Hatswell said. “We would need someone to speak up and say that was a violation before we would look into it — which is exactly what happened today.”

Patrick Spanos said the principal told him he can’t distribute videos from the event online.

“She said we’re not allowed to post on any social media,” he said. “We can keep it — we just can’t post it.”

Anthony Spanos said the idea behind filming the debate was simply to show a different perspective.

“That’s the only thing the media covers — at least the mainstream media — is gun control activists. Pro-gun activists don’t have their voices given to the public,” he said. “That’s why I had my brother bring the camera, just to show that there was another side of the argument with students and we were going to try and get that out to the public.”

According to the ASD high school handbook, “(s)chool authorities may temporarily seize items that disrupt or interfere with the educational process.”

No other phones or cameras were taken during Friday’s event. Hatswell returned Patrick Spanos’s phone after the event and said the camera would be returned at the end of the day.

Anthony Spanos 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.

OPENING A DIALOGUE

If anything, Spanos said Friday’s protest helped increase dialogue surrounding the issue of gun control — before the event, he said, he had never personally discussed the issue with many of his classmates.

“A lot of the discussion is online and not in person,” he said. “This was actually the first time we had had discussions in person with people.”

His brother said he expects the debate to continue outside of school.

“I think some of the arguments will continue on social media,” Patrick Spanos said.

Walden said she thought the event was a success, and proved local students are passionate about engaging in the public process.

“I think we can just show that the youth of Anchorage do care about what happens and we’re here to make a change,” she said.

Despite the brief conflict, Hatswell said the event provided a good outlet for students to express their views in a respectful way.

“I think it went well,” she said. “I was happy to see as many kids involved and be able to articulate their viewpoints.”

Hoffman said it was encouraging to see so many of her classmates turn out to support the cause.

“I’m really proud of the people who spoke up today,” she said.

Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected]

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