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Nevada County students join in National School Walkout

Grass Valley Charter School teens hold up their signs before participating in the nationwide school walk out day Wednesday morning.
Elias Funez/efunez@theunion.com

Students across Nevada County took part in a variety of events Wednesday as part of a national school walkout to protest gun violence and promote safe schools.

Staff, administrators and students at Grass Valley Charter School all marched together through downtown Grass Valley to deliver letters to Mayor Howard Levine. In Nevada City, 40 seventh- and eighth-graders from Yuba River Charter School spoke out in front of City Hall. Eighty-five students and two teachers from Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning hosted an information session for students during a lunch period.

And at Nevada Union High School, more than 100 students took part in a rally held during a passing period.

Organizers at Nevada Union started off by reading the names and ages of each person killed on Valentine’s Day at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, then led chants of “we want change” and “Books not guns.”

“If adults make a decision I don’t agree with, I feel like I should get up and say something, not just grumble about it. We can rise up together and change it to what we feel is right.”— Jaia Aginsky, Yuba River Charter School student

A call for 10 minutes of silence gradually calmed all chatter and socializing, ending with more than 100 students standing or sitting or even lying on the cold, damp concrete, some holding signs with messages such as “We are students … We are victims … We are change.”

Morgan Margulies, one of the organizers and co-president of the Social Justice Club, told the crowd, “This will not be enough, if you don’t take political action,” before leading a chant for change that swelled, died down, then came back louder than ever with the students clapping along.

“It was great to see everybody come out and support the cause, to spread unity and peace,” said Sam Beilman, sitting on the ground with a sign that read “Protect our kids NOT your guns” and a carnation. “I wasn’t expecting the turnout.”

According to club co-president Sierra Raskie Jeska, organizing the event became a very emotional experience.

“Our lives matter more than your guns,” she said, reflecting on a message she put on a sign. “I was in disbelief that this actually needs to be said. It’s heart-breaking.”

But the rising tide of student activism gives her hope for the future, Raskie Jeska said.

“The next step is to push for change,” she said. “Marches are not enough — but it’s a step in the right direction, and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

Principal Kelly Rhoden, initially concerned about rumors that pranksters might disrupt the event by pulling a fire alarm, said she was pleased with the respect her students showed each other.

According to Rhoden, the organizers wanted the event to be as public as possible while disrupting school as little as possible. So after agreeing to stay on campus, they came up with the idea of having the protest during passing period so that students who participated would only be slightly tardy to their next class.

“It (was) a student-driven protest put together and organized by the students,” she said. “I think that’s incredible. … The thought they put into this, to impact classes as little as possible — it speaks to their integrity.”

Jim Drew, the president of the Nevada Joint Union High School Board, was on hand, as was district Superintendent Louise Bennicoff Johnson.

“I was proud of them,” Drew said. “They put on a well-organized event and shared some facts with the students in attendance.”

Bear River parent angered by protest

At least one parent at Bear River planned to speak out against the walkout at Wednesday’s board meeting.

Eric Christen, who says that his family belongs to the NRA, traded a series of emails with Principal Amy Besler over a student’s column in the school newspaper, as well as the walkout itself.

Christen said in an email he planned to address the trustees Wednesday to discuss “how the effort to honor the Parkland dead has apparently been hijacked by anti-gun zealots.”

Christen said he would like to see the issue be substantively (and even-handedly) discussed in a community forum on school safety.

“I think we need a comprehensive discussion about both the national situation, as well as what we can do locally,” he said.

According to Besler, who posted on Bear River’s Facebook page, there had been lots of information, misinformation, questions, and confusion swirling regarding the walkout at the South County school.

She stressed that the walkout had been organized by students and was not a school event.

“Class will continue while this is taking place,” Besler wrote. “All teachers will remain in the classrooms with their students, doing their usual teaching and learning thing.”

Besler added that Bear River’s students have the right to express their views through peaceful assembly, as well as through student journalistic publications like the Bear River Current and Bear River Bulletin.

Younger students also walk out

The staff at Grass Valley Charter School chose to make the walkout a school-wide event as a time to model for kids how to positively interact with our democracy, said Principal Scott Maddock.

Students and teachers marched starting at 10 a.m. and delivered cards, notes and letters to Levine. A number of the students carried signs that said they were “walking up (to bullying victims, for example), not out.”

“They went out and held a march for peace,” Maddock said. “We talk a lot about building crew at Grass Valley Charter School — that means everyone is in this together and has an active part in building school community. And this was a huge school community-builder.”

At Yuba River Charter School, middle school students Jaia Aginsky and Annika Casey Welch organized approximately 40 seventh- and eighth graders to march to City Hall in Nevada City with a list of demands — for the city to prohibit assault rifles and weapons of war, to raise the age limit to purchases of any firearm to 21, to “make a clear and unequivocal statement against teachers or anyone carrying firearms into our schools,” and “to commit to not financially supporting the National Rifle Association and furthermore to not financially supporting any organization that invests into the NRA.”

“At 10 (a.m.), we stood up and told our teacher we respect her, but this was something we had to do,” Aginsky said, adding that eighth-grade teacher Kate Haight ended up accompanying them.

Once at City Hall, the students stood in silence and then took turns reading speeches they had prepared. Nevada City Mayor Duane Strawser had been invited to meet with them, but was unable to attend.

“The message you are spreading needs to be heard loud and clear,” Strawser wrote Aginsky in an email. “Thank you for having the courage to speak out for your beliefs.”

Aginsky said the question should not be why students her age are protesting — but why aren’t more people speaking out.

“This directly affects us,” she said. “If adults make a decision I don’t agree with, I feel like I should get up and say something, not just grumble about it. We can rise up together and change it to what we feel is right.”

Aginsky said that when she saw the coverage of the Florida shootings, she wept.

But then, she said, she felt empowered by seeing how the students there turned to activism.

“I saw how instead of wallowing and being upset, they decided they would be strong about it and change it,” Aginsky said. “I realized I could do that too.”

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at lizk@theunion.com.

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