Hawaii students joined tens of thousands of others across the country Wednesday by walking out of classes to demand action on gun violence.
In one of the biggest national student protests since the Vietnam era, students took a break from their school routines to honor the people killed in school shootings, including 17 who died in the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
The walkouts began at 10 a.m. across the islands and lasted for 17 minutes in memory of the Florida victims.
Hawaii students streamed out of their classrooms and into fields, gyms and cafeterias to commemorate victims of gun violence, observe moments of silence, wave signs and stand in solidarity with a movement that became the No. 1-trending topic on Twitter: #NationalWalkoutDay.
Under cloudy skies at Farrington High School in central Honolulu, hundreds of students gathered in the front courtyard for a program that began with an ‘oli (Hawaiian chant) by Ho’onani Kamai, a senior. The program featured a reading of the names and ages of the victims from the Parkland shootings, 17 seconds of silence and also a performance of “Amazing Grace” by Kamai.
Students clasped hands and formed long connected rows on the lawn.
Zachary Cummings, 14, a ninth-grader, said he didn’t know “how to put in words” his sentiments about the morning event, but he said it was important to participate in the walkout “to remember and spread the word” of gun safety.
“I think it could happen here but it’s not very likely,” he said of a school shooting. “Since Hawaii is such a small island, we’re one big family.”
Participation at school walkouts was voluntary to recognize they were student-led events, but many schools extended their recess periods, created designated areas on campus for students to appear and expressed support for student organizing.
The student walkouts — held on the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shootings and the first in a series of other rallies scheduled to take place on March 24 and April 20 to urge stricter gun control laws — occurred at public schools, private schools and even the University of Hawaii Manoa.
About 60 members of the UH Manoa campus community gathered on Bachman Lawn, at the corner of Dole and University Streets. Students waved signs and banners as passing cars honked in support.
Many UH students at the rally said they felt safe on campus, but wanted to show solidarity with students across the country whose lives have been threatened by gun violence at school. Someone chanted “books not guns” over a speaker.
After the 17 minutes was up, a few speakers gathered in front of the shrinking crowd. Their messages were similar: Hawaii should not be complacent just because it has less gun violence and stricter gun control measures than other states — gun violence can happen anywhere.
Across the street at University Lab School, a public charter, more than 100 students stood on their lawn waving signs that read “Am I Next?” and “Remember 17.”
“That’s our hope for the future right across the street,” said Steffanie Soitz, a Florida native and UH Manoa junior, gesturing toward the Lab School students.
Through Twitter, teachers and administrators from Kauai High to Waianae Intermediate to Inouye Elementary snapped photos of their students holding hand-made posters with such slogans as “Never Again,” “Keep our campus safe” and “Remember the 17.”
Hawaii’s political delegation also expressed solidarity with the movement. “To every student making their voice heard today: We hear you. We stand with you. We will fight to get this done,” tweeted Sen. Mazie Hirono.
“These young people across the country are going to save the world. Our job is to listen and follow,” tweeted Sen. Brian Schatz.
At Kapaa High School on Kauai, more than 500 students — over half the enrollment — turned out in a driving rain to press the point that school gun violence is as much of a concern in their isolated, rural environment as in urban centers like Honolulu.
Students assembled in front of 17 chairs draped with leis to symbolize the Florida victims. Kasiah Vercelli, a sophomore who led organizing efforts at Kapaa High, said the most recent mass killing tipped the scales among students and brought about more resolve to act than after previous school shootings.
“I’ve always been super passionate about gun reform. We’re tired of the constant fear that it could happen to us,” she said. “I think if we stand together everywhere, we will have a powerful voice.”
The observance at Kapaa High lasted about 15 minutes in unrelenting rain. As students drifted away, one of them took his T-shirt off to wring it out before stepping back into the classroom.
Schools on the Big Island responded to the walkout in various ways. Students in at least one East Hawaii high school held a roadside sign-waving while staying within the bounds of a fence along the school property. Some other schools said they were having events within the school property at which the public, including the media, were not allowed.
Others, especially charter schools, seemed more open. At Hawaii Academy of Arts and Sciences in Pahoa, students organized their own event, with speeches and a moment of silence, just outside the campus grounds.
At some schools with younger children, teachers had to take a larger hand at organizing the events. At Volcano School of Arts and Sciences, a charter school in Volcano that serves first- through eighth-grade students, the sixth and eighth graders already had field trips scheduled for today. But at 10 a.m. teachers led all the other students through the rain, out onto the playing field behind the school, and helped them arrange themselves into a giant peace sign.
Kim Miller, school counselor, led students in singing songs such as “I’ve Got Peace in My Fingers.” Some of the classmates held each others’ hands as they sang.
The goal, Miller said afterward, was to emphasize “peace and taking care of each other,” rather than raising young students’ anxieties.
Despite media reports in other parts of the country that students would face disciplinary action for participating in school walkouts, the climate in Hawaii has been largely supportive of the student rallies. School superintendent Christina Kishimoto issued guidance early on, reminding parents and teachers that the central administration supports students’ rights to free expression and peaceful assembly.
Gov. David Ige also expressed support of walkouts by appearing at his alma mater, Pearl City High in Aiea, his office said in a press release.
A photo included in the release showed the governor addressing students at an indoor assembly.
At Farrington, students were reminded that anyone who left campus during the walkout would face consequences — if they were noted to have left class before 9:55 a.m. or failed to return by 10:35 a.m. they would be marked as “cutting class.”
Promptly at 10:20, as raindrops began to fall, students wearing the maroon colors of their school steadily streamed back inside.
“We should have more gun control and more support for the people who need help,” said senior Darlyn Quiba, 18.
Allan Parachini contributed to this report from Kauai and Alan McNarie from The Big Island.
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