More than 100 Natrona County High students walked out of class and gathered on the school’s football field Wednesday morning to show solidarity with the victims of mass shootings in the wake of a deadly attack at a Florida high school.
The demonstration lasted for 1,606 seconds, representing the number of mass shootings in the United States since the December 2012 attack at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. Student leaders, organized under the banner of the Casper Youth for Change, spoke for the first half of the walkout and then told the crowd to spend the rest of the time reflecting on the attacks.
The organizers, led by senior Hunter Bullard, have stressed that the walkout is not meant to signal a political stance for or against gun control. She and other speakers spoke more about the political moment in which high school students, led by the survivors in Florida, have been thrust into.
“Today, as we take one of the challenges of security and remembrance, let us always remember that nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood,” senior Kevin Milburn told the crowd, which sat on the corner of the school’s field. “Now is the time to understand more, so we may fear less.”
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear,” he continued.
After him came Bullard, who thanked her fellow organizers, as well as the school’s administration and law enforcement.
As she would several times in her speech, she pulled a quote from history.
“It was Thomas Paine who said, ‘If there is trouble, let it be in my day, that my children may have peace,’” she said. “I imagine all of you out here today know just what the trouble is.”
She reminded the crowd of Wednesday’s significance: It was three weeks to the day that a gunman walked into a Florida high school and murdered 17 people. The massacre has set off a political debate about guns and their role in American society. Nationally and in Natrona County, educators have discussed whether to arm willing staff members as a means of protecting schools.
Bullard noted that Wyoming schools — or the state in general — had not “lived through” a mass shooting.
“The truth is I pray we never have to,” she said. “ ... Because of that, we don’t understand tragedy, such as the ones that are sweeping the nation and we are much less likely to act.”
Bullard asked for a moment of silence 14 minutes into the walkout, or after 840 seconds that represented 840 mass shootings.
The Casper Youth for Change’s leaders have shied away from taking political positions, particularly on gun control. But they’ve suggested some changes within the district: Bullard called on students to engage with their classmates, especially those who are struggling. She outline the group’s calls for action, which include more emphasis on bullying prevention and mental health intervention.
As Bullard spoke, Milburn leaned a small American flag on his shoulder. Other students carried signs.
Senior Catherine O’Connor held a cardboard sign that read “never again,” a slogan adopted by student activists. She capitalized the N, R and A in her sign, an apparent reference to the National Rifle Association. The pro-gun organization has received intense criticism in the wake of the Parkland massacre.
“I feel like this is one opportunity we have to make a difference,” she said.
“I want to see a change in the control of guns,” added senior Michael Gehred, who stood next to O’Connor and carried his own cardboard sign. He said gun restrictions should be tighter for people with mental health problems.
Sophomore Tanner Ewalt said the Casper Youth for Change were planning other actions, including a potential walkout on April 20, which is the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shootings.
Bullard finished her remarks by quoting Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” a song released in 1988. At that time, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history was the 1984 attack at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California, which left 21 dead. That mark has since been surpassed six times. Five of those attacks have occurred during the lifetime of Bullard and her classmates.
She asked her classmates to reflect on the victims of gun violence and to consider what they can do to protect their school.
“If you want to make the world a better place,” Bullard recited, “take a look at yourself and make a change.”