Robin Jerstad for the Rivard Report
In the weeks following the Parkland, Florida, school shooting that claimed the lives of 17 people, San Antonio students have walked out of classrooms, planned marches, and written letters to elected representatives.
On Friday night, about 40 students, teachers, and parents gathered at the University of Texas at San Antonio's downtown campus to plan the March For Our Lives, a demonstration set for Saturday, March 24. Organizers are touting the march as a student-led effort to push for policy reform.
At the planning session, students from San Antonio Independent School District, Northside ISD, North East ISD, and Great Hearts Academies talked about march logistics, including the route, timing, and attire. Organizers settled on noon as the meeting time for the march, with the route winding from City Hall to the Alamo.
They also discussed gun violence and what they wanted changed at the national and local level.
Three students from Brackenridge High School attended the planning session. Even before the March for Our Lives was organized, they wanted to hold a campus-level walkout to bring attention to the frequent gun violence in their inner-city community.
Senior Juan Cantu said he went to school administrators and was told that leaving campus could jeopardize student safety. Brackenridge High School is located just south of downtown, near busy streets in San Antonio's urban core.
Cantu said they suggested attending a separate, school-sanctioned event in lieu of exiting the campus. He called this suggestion, "pretty worthless" because students would use it as an excuse to get out of class. Walking off campus and into downtown, Cantu said, would spread more awareness of the protest.
"This [movement] isn't just for students," he said.
Victoria Gonzalez, a senior at Brackenridge, said that her peers experience threats of violence on and off campus, so talk about gun control shouldn't be limited to schools.
Shootings happen all the time in San Antonio's West, East, and South sides, Gonzalez said. School shootings are one element of gun violence that could be stopped through policy change.
Manu Livar, an eighth grader at Great Hearts, said students at his school also experience gun violence. Last year, he said, a student accidentally shot himself with his father's gun.
"To me, that also counts as gun violence," Livar said.
The planning session group agreed to continue communicating via Instagram, Snapchat, and other social media networks to prepare for the March 24 event. Even though a limited number of students attended the session, organizers said they hoped many more would show up for the march.
Jack Lea, an 18-year-old junior at Johnson High School, plans to attend the march. He organized his own protest last month, when he walked out of the classroom and held a moment of silence.
"I don’t know what it was about this Florida shooting that really struck a nerve or hit close to home, maybe because there was video of the event, but there is something about it," said Lea, who added that he wrote letters to three Republican members of Congress from Texas: U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, and U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith. "I got automatic, 'You’re wrong, thank you for contacting, great to hear from you' responses, which don’t really mean anything, but probably means it never gets read."
When Lea didn't hear back from his elected officials, he decided to create change differently. Along with about 15 other students, Lea walked out of the classroom in protest of gun violence. The students gathered in the main lobby of the school and held a 17-minute moment of silence for the 17 Parkland victims.
Lea said he received pushback from school administrators, who claimed the event was disruptive. He said the assistant principals and the principal attempted to convince students to return to their classrooms, but the students stood their ground and maintained their moment of silence. Administrators later scheduled meetings with the students to discuss future action.
At these meetings, administrators encouraged students to organize a sanctioned group, and the "Never Again" club was thus formed. Lea said the school-endorsed club is more of a "watchdog" group that looks out for fellow students to make sure everyone has a friend.
Lea said he and fellow members also plan to form a sister organization focused on political reform.
"I personally don't think that raising the age limit to buy a gun is enough," he said. "I'm a gun owner myself. My father and I recently bought a shotgun and were in and out of the store in under an hour. That didn't seem right to me."
National School Walkout
In the wake of the Florida shooting, students have also organized through National School Walkout, a group that encourages walkouts at the campus-level on April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine school shooting.
According to the group's website, students should exit the classroom at 10 a.m. and not return for the remainder of the day.
San Antonio-area schools will participate in the event, according to National School Walkout's map. As of Friday night, the map names 10 local schools as participants, including Lanier High School, Travis Early College High School, St. Philips Early College High School, Highlands High School, and the Young Women's Leadership Academy and Jefferson High School in San Antonio ISD; LEE and MacArthur high schools in North East ISD; Southside High School in Southside ISD; Holmes High School in Northside ISD; and School of Science and Technology.
Districts are planning for the walkout, disseminating policy so students know how a walkout could affect their academic records.
Seguin High School, about 40 miles northeast of San Antonio, has taken the toughest stance on the planned walkouts. Principal Hector Esquivel posted on Facebook that a student walkout would constitute a violation of the code of conduct, punishable by one day of in-school suspension.
San Antonio criminal defense attorney Steven Gilmore said he wrote Seguin High School administrators after students there contacted him. He said the high school could be making a "content based distinction" about the reason for missing class. This kind of a differentiation, he said, violates the students' rights.
Gilmore said has hasn't heard of any other San Antonio-area districts taking the same approach but is willing to represent any student penalized for the walkout in a disciplinary hearing, pro bono.
North East ISD sent a letter to parents shortly after the Florida shooting to say the proposed April 20 walkout will be subject to the same policy as any other possible protest.
"If a student either chooses not to attend or walks out of class, the District will treat it as an unexcused absence, and the student will not receive credit for any work expected to be completed during the class period," the letter said.
NEISD said it would also not accept parent requests to excuse students from classes "under these circumstances."
Lea said Johnson High School has planned a sanctioned event on April 20. Anyone wearing orange that day will be able to exit the school and hold a 17-minute moment of silence on the football field.
San Antonio ISD has potential campuses that have indicated participation in the walkout. In a prepared statement, SAISD said it would offer a "structured peaceful assembly at a designated location on campus" as an alternative to any proposed walkouts.
Off-campus walkouts would be viewed as an unexcused absence, the statement said.
Northside ISD is still determining the best approach for this kind of conversation in the district, according to a spokesperson.