The sound of gunfire near her own school jolted Teia O’Malley into organizing a walkout rally to protest gun violence after the recent massacre at a Florida high school claimed 17 lives.
The sophomore was sitting in class at Kaiser High School, which sits at the foot of Koko Head Regional Park and near the Koko Head Shooting Complex in Hawaii Kai.
“Two days after the (Florida) shooting, when I was at school, I could hear gunshots coming from the gun range just over the mountain,” the 16-year-old said. “Another teacher told me that when her class heard the shots, they visibly flinched.”
“I think this was the moment that really spurred me to organize the walkout at Kaiser,” she said.
Students nationwide are organizing 17-minute walkouts Wednesday, one month after the Florida shootings.
Representing both public and private schools, Hawaii students have coalesced around social media. They’ve held weekend planning meetings. They’ve gone to school administrators to request permission to hold rallies and deliver speeches on campus.
They are making their voices heard.
It’s a clear sign that the student-led movement taking shape around the U.S. in the past month has reached into Hawaii, where a perceived lack of civic engagement is often chalked up to the islands’ remote location.
“We may be safe in Hawaii but students in most other states are not,” said O’Malley. “Just because we are far away from Florida does not mean that we can dissociate ourselves from this problem. Hawaii is geographically isolated from the rest of the country but we cannot use distance as an excuse to not get involved.”
Many see the 17-minute walkout — timed to honor the 17 lives lost at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida — as a way to stand in solidarity with the victims. Students hope it’s the start of a more sustained and active display of youth engagement in Hawaii, including increased voter participation, and a wake-up call to politicians about the power of student activism.
The National School Walkout, organized by the Women’s March Youth EMPOWER network, is the first of a series of upcoming events to raise awareness of gun violence, advocate for stricter gun control legislation and give students more of a voice on the issues.
March For Our Lives events will be held March 24 in Washington, D.C., and many other U.S. cities, including Honolulu. That will be followed by another nationwide event on April 20. One area march later this month that will take participants past the State Capitol is being organized by a coalition of students and nonprofits organizing under #NeverAgainHI. A separate march that day is being organized by an entirely student-led group.
About seven members of the latter group met Sunday at the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine in Kakaako to talk about their respective schools’ plans for the Wednesday walkouts and for their March 24 rally at Ala Moana Park from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.
Coming together through social media, and creating an Instagram account to track their activities @MarchForOurLivesHonolulu, the students discussed why the Florida shootings and the response struck such a nerve with them. They cited the similar ages of the student victims and also Parkland activist Emma Gonzalez, whose speech at an anti-gun rally following the rampage has been viewed more than 2.7 million times online.
“We’re just angry students,” said Hayden Hawkins, a 10th-grader at University Laboratory School. “How many more kids are going to have to die before (lawmakers) do anything?”
He and his peers were born after Colorado’s Columbine High School shooting in 1999 and were just coming of age when the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre occurred in 2012. But more recent mass shootings, such as at an Orlando nightclub and in Las Vegas at an outdoor concert, have generated class assignments on school shootings and gun control, making them common topics.
“It was relevant two years ago, it’s relevant now,” Hawkins said. “You can write as many papers as you want, but we haven’t seen any change.”
Despite Hawaii’s reputation for having among the strictest gun control laws in the nation and a low firearm mortality rate, students say one of their goals is to push area lawmakers for even tougher gun control measures.
That effort will begin Wednesday at 10 a.m. with student-led walkouts all over the state.
Kaiser High will hold a rally on its football field in which O’Malley and another student plus the school principal will speak. That will be followed by a minute of silence to observe the lives lost in Florida.
Moanalua High plans to light candles and brainstorm ways to prevent gun violence on this scale.
Other area schools said they are modifying their bell schedules for the day to allow for student walkouts and offering an extended recess so students can participate. The walkouts are even stirring activity at the elementary school level, including at Waikiki School, a preK-5 school which exercises the Habits of Mind classroom philosophy.
Public school students say they were reassured by the fact Hawaii school superintendent Christina Kishimoto issued a March 2 letter to parents saying the central administration supports “students’ constitutional rights to a peaceful assembly and free expression,” while encouraging school leaders to provide a designated walkout area for those who choose to participate.
In the wake of the Stoneman Douglas High shootings, the state of Florida for the first time in more than two decades passed a gun control bill that raises the minimum age to 21 for buying firearms, bans bump stock devices and creates a waiting period for gun purchases. It also includes a measure to allow for certain school personnel to be trained and armed.
In Washington, some members of Congress have reframed the issue from stricter gun control provisions to enhanced school safety measures, such as federal funding for bulletproof doors and metal detectors to arming teachers.
Gun safety proposals such as more thorough background checks, increasing the minimum age for gun purchases and a ban on assault-style weapons — like the kind used in the Parkland shootings — don’t appear to be gaining any traction at the federal level.
In Hawaii, #NeverAgainHI organizers say planned protest rallies are about much more than just school-related gun violence, but also domestic violence and inner-city violence involving firearms.
University of Hawaii Manoa student Sarah Catino, who is organizing a walkout Wednesday on Bachman Lawn along with speeches, also sees the event as an opportunity to encourage youth voter registration. Her coalition is also inviting private school secondary students who are on spring break this week and don’t have a home campus in which to rally.
“For me, I have always felt helpless when it comes to supporting causes I believe in. This comes from being young and removed from movements on the mainland by living in Hawaii,” said Taylor McKenzie, 17, a senior at Sacred Hearts Academy. “Seeing that the Enough is Enough movement was started and is being organized by people my age has really inspired me to take action and make a difference in my own community.”
Experts say this is a strong learning opportunity.
“It often takes one issue or one moment for people to get involved and when that happens when they’re young, they become politically active for the rest of their lives,” said Colin Moore, director of the University of Hawaii Public Policy Center.
“As a result of participating, you get the skills to do this later in life. You know how to organize a protest, to engage in the community, and these are skills that don’t leave you. If there’s a positive result, you know the power of direct action.”
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