A row of 17 empty desks lined an enclosed walkway at Sacramento’s Hiram Johnson High School on Wednesday, some covered with flowers and each with a placard containing the name of a victim of the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla., last month.
Empty desks were also placed in front of McClatchy High School, where students stood on the front steps of the Land Park campus.
Student walkouts across the nation were billed as a mass protest against the National Rifle Association and a call for stricter gun control measures in response to the February shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 people dead.
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But at many schools in the Sacramento region, the National School Walkout had the feel of a vigil and a call to action for a generation approaching voting age. Students largely avoided political topics, although some of the state’s highest-ranking politicians attended their rallies and the issue of gun control did come up.
“This event is strictly for honoring the students (who died),” Hiram Johnson High School student body president Serena Rainer said.
Peaceful walkouts were staged on several campuses around the region. School officials reported no serious incidents.
At least 400 students walked out of Davis High School, despite a warning from the district that those who took part in the walkout would be marked with an unexcused absence. Students carrying signs and megaphones marched at Granite Bay High School. Young people gathered in courtyards at schools in Elk Grove, Natomas, Antelope and Roseville.
Student leaders at Bella Vista used the platform to demand that adults do something to keep them safe. They called for active shooter drills and more access to counselors and psychiatrists.
“So talk to your representatives, talk to your school board, talk to your administration,” said Rachel Neches, a senior who helped organize the walkout. “Let your voice be heard. We need more mental health services, we need protocol on how to handle an active shooter. We need improved school safety regulations. And most importantly, we need more empathy.”
Students were asked to raise their hands if they didn’t know what to do if an active shooter comes on campus. Most raised their hands.
School board member Paula Villescaz said she was 10 when 12 students and one teacher were killed at Columbine High School in Colorado. Since then, 122 students have died in school shootings, she said.
“You are doing the work I thought my generation would be doing,” she said.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, city schools Superintendent Jorge Aguilar, school board president Jessie Ryan and City Councilman Eric Guerra attended a walkout at Hiram Johnson. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León were at McClatchy High School, less than three miles from the state Capitol.
“A lot of our students feel that they don’t have a voice,” Rainer said. “The mayor is here, the superintendent is here. It shows that we do have a voice.”
Steinberg closed his eyes as students spoke, bowing his head.
“What you’re doing here today, peacefully and with great dignity and with great strength, is saying with a collective voice: ‘No more victims, no more broken-hearted communities and families,’” the mayor told the students. “And you know, tears are a good thing, emotion and passion is a good thing.”
McClatchy students started their walkout with a 17-minute moment of silence. With two of the state’s most powerful politicians in attendance, students said they no longer will tolerate a lack of action by lawmakers after mass shootings.
“There have been too many unnecessary deaths due to gun violence, and today we have stood up and said ‘enough is enough,’” said McClatchy student and walkout organizer Maya Steinhart.
Aguilar, the city schools chief, and district officials had helped organize walkout events like the ones at Hiram Johnson and McClatchy. Students who left campus or remained out of class for more than 17 minutes faced getting an unexcused absence.
When the 17 minutes were over at Hiram Johnson, students filed back into their classrooms. None were seen leaving campus. Many students hugged one another and posed for photographs with the mayor.
“It was our hope that it would be done in a safe matter and I think that’s what you’re seeing,” Aguilar said. “These 17 minutes were very special for our students.”
Gun control – and the NRA – was a focus away from school campuses.
In downtown Sacramento, a rally of about 300 people in front of the NRA’s legislative lobbying office on Capitol Mall took a broader view of gun violence. Attendees there called for more federal curbs on gun ownership and more attention to gun-related deaths outside of schools.
“This is an ongoing movement to prevent gun violence and in honor of all the victims of gun violence from James Brady to Treyvon Martin to the 96 Americans killed by a gun every day,” said Nayzak Wali-Ali, a senior at Natomas Charter School Performing and Fine Arts Academy, who helped emcee the event.
Students also held up signs with the names of the 17 students and educators killed at Parkland.
Speakers repeatedly called out the National Rifle Association as an impediment to curbing gun violence and blocking legislation around guns.
“We have a major problem with the NRA … and the GOP being in the hands of, or owned by, the NRA,” said Jennifer Siebel Newsom, a documentary filmmaker and wife of California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom.
State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, said the federal government had “failed” students.
“I’m so frustrated that we have not been able to protect (kids) because of groups like the NRA,” she said.
Siebel Newsom also spoke about what she described as a culture of “toxic masculinity” in America that contributed to gun violence.
“Women and girls have the same access to guns and have the same mental health issues,” she said, adding that boys need to be taught “power does not come from dominance and aggression.”
The Capitol Mall rally also focused on encouraging teens to register to vote. Organizers stressed that 16-year-olds are able to pre-register, and encouraged them to remain politically active even if they can’t yet go to the polls.
“To the adults who have said, ‘You guys do not have the credentials to lead movements such as this,’ I say get a history book,” said youth organizer Winter Minisee, a 17-year-old from Riverside. She pointed out that civil rights icon and politician John Lewis was about her age when he was first arrested for civil disobedience.
“This is nothing new,” Minisee said.
Nearly three dozen state legislators walked out of the Capitol and stood in silence to support the national walkout on Wednesday morning. Legislative employees and a group of students visiting Sacramento from Riverside joined the demonstration.
“We know that this is a movement that is really taking hold amongst the youth in our country and we wanted to show that we were in solidarity with them,” said Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, who helped organize the Capitol event.
While the demonstrations gained national coverage and support, they did have critics.
The NRA Wednesday posted on Twitter a picture of an AR-15, the same gun used in the Parkland killings, with the caption, "I'll control my own guns, thank you."
Locally, Craig DeLuz, spokesman for lobbying and advocacy group Firearms Policy Coalition, questioned whether it was appropriate for schools to have sanctioned the walkouts in many locations.
"The idea of encouraging students to be truant from school over a political position over which you happen to agree I think is a little disingenuous," DeLuz said. "I wish that as much energy and effort was included in actually teaching the entire Bill of Rights, including the Second Amendment, as was put in by schools to avoid or ignore it."
Taryn Luna and Ed Fletcher contributed to this report.