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Hellgate walkout

Hundreds of students from Missoula's Hellgate High School rallied in Caras Park after walking out of class on Feb. 21 to call for stronger gun laws in the wake of the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The students lined the Higgins Avenue bridge for about 30 minutes before marching through downtown and gathering at the park before returning to school.

KURT WILSON, Missoulian

Students around Montana plan to walk out of school Wednesday for 17 minutes, one minute for every life lost at last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

In Missoula, elementary schoolers through college students plan to participate in the national walkout in different ways, including carrying signs, singing songs, reading poetry or holding moments of silence.

In doing so, they join a student-led movement that is advancing the conversation around safe schools and gun regulations after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Some of the Montana school walkouts, in particular those for young students, will not focus on gun violence, but will be a chance for students to discuss peace and safety on their own terms.

Organizers say nearly 3,000 walkouts are planned around the country, according to the Associated Press. Some students who wish to honor the victims of the school shootings, but who don't feel represented by the anti-gun sentiment of the walkouts, are holding their own events. 

Columbia Falls High School senior Braxton Shewalter said he and about 50 of his friends plan to hold a pro-gun walkout that is intended to honor victims. Shewalter, 17, said he and his peers will be peaceful and he hopes there are no disturbances between the two groups.

"People have been saying if you support guns you don't support the victims, and you're the reason for these shootings happening, which is uncalled for," he said.

At Big Sky High School, students plan to walk out at 10 a.m., which is when the national #Enough National School Walkout — organized by Women’s March Youth Empower, a group of teenage activists around the country — will take place.

At Sentinel High School, students plan to do the same, standing on South Avenue.

Hundreds of Missoula high school students also participated in a student walkout on Feb. 21 to call for safer schools and more gun regulations, and to stand in solidarity with Parkland students.

While Missoula County Public Schools does not sanction the walkouts, it released a statement saying it will not penalize students beyond the usual attendance procedures for participating. High school students who miss class without parental permission will be marked absent, and could have to attend detention.

MCPS Superintendent Mark Thane stressed that the district cannot endorse the walkouts, but will do its best to keep students safe and to maintain a respectful environment for students of differing opinions.

He said in his entire career with the district, and in his three years as superintendent, he’s never seen such widespread student demonstrations.

“I do think its an important voice,” Thane said. “And I’m thinking that it may certainly influence the conversation if it’s sustained. And if that teaches young adults to be more fully engaged in process and conversation then I think that’s certainly a good thing.”

Elementary and middle school students must be signed out by a parent or guardian to leave school.

School administrators and members of the Missoula Police Department may be present at the walkouts to ensure students are safe and not violating any laws or school policies. Their presence does not indicate an endorsement of the walkout, the statement clarified.

“We are asking students who choose to participate to conduct themselves with respect, responsibility, and to adhere to school policies and the law. Thank you for your help in sharing these expectations with your student(s).”

The MCPS personnel policy says employees, including teachers, are prohibited from engaging in political activity while on district property or during the school day. To participate, a teacher must have permission to take leave for the day from his or her supervisor, said Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, the statewide teachers’ union.

“It is not our desire to see any teacher in any way find him or herself in difficulties because they may be sympathetic to what the students are doing,” Feaver said. “This is a student protest, not a teacher protest. If there is any teacher engagement, it is as supervisors of the process.”

Teachers are permitted to use their lunch time as they please, and a version of a walkout at Lewis and Clark Elementary School will take place at 11 a.m., during the lunch hour, to allow teachers to join. Rachel Kantor, a parent of two students at Lewis and Clark, helped to organize the walkout. 

She said they will walk to Playfair Park, where they will hold 17 minutes of silence, carry signs, and do a collaborative art project to honor the students who died. Other members of the community, and students from other schools, are welcome to join, Kantor said.

The independent Missoula International School is holding two school-wide events it's calling the “Walkout for Peace.”

MIS Principal Julie Lennox said that after her middle school students heard about the Hellgate high schoolers protesting last month, they had conversations about school safety and what kind of message they wanted to share on March 14.

As they talked about it and what it meant to them, they decided they wanted to stand up for peace and love,” Lennox said.

Because the school also has preschoolers and elementary schoolers, they decided to focus on creating an inclusive environment instead of talking about gun violence.

Fourth- through eighth-graders will walk with signs to the Van Buren footbridge, where they plan to spell the word “love” with their bodies. Then some students will read poems and other written pieces about inclusivity, love and peace. The younger kids will gather in the school playground and sing a song they’ve been learning in Spanish about peace.

At the University of Montana, students are also planning a walkout at 10 a.m. to the Grizzly statue, where there will be letter-writing supplies so that people can contact legislators and congressional leaders. All members of the UM community are invited.

Student activist and the event’s organizer Maggie Bornstein said Montana congressional candidate Kathleen Williams will attend and hold a meet-and-greet with students. Williams, a gun owner herself, has spoken out against public ownership of assault weapons while supporting hunters’ rights.

ACLU Director Caitlin Borgmann emailed state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen and other school administrators urging them to support students as they exercise their First Amendment rights. Students may not be penalized any more than they would for usually missing class, the email read. 

"We have encouraged any student (or anyone who knows a student) who is disciplined for engaging in a peaceful demonstration related to school gun violence to fill out our online intake form so that our legal team can determine if additional action is warranted," Borgmann wrote.

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Missoulian.