School shootings, like the one that killed 17 people in Florida last week, are a fact of life for today’s students.
“It’s hard to go to school the next day and not look for a place to hide in a shooting,” said West High junior Emily Tschetter. “All of us have lived post-Columbine.”
Tschetter and a group Billings students believe that they deserve better. They believe their voices can help make things better.
The group, operating informally under a national movement called March for Our Lives, is calling for a student walk-out in Billings high schools on March 14 and a formal march in the downtown area on March 24.
“We want legislation that protects schools against gun violence,” said Allison Johnson, a junior at West High.
The plans come as high school students around the nation have taken a high-profile role in demanding political action to address school shootings.
Hundreds of students walked out of a Missoula high school Wednesday. Some wielded signs like “Protect Kids Not Guns” and “Thoughts and Prayers Don’t Save Lives.”
During an after-school meeting Friday, students discussed what exactly that meant — and what it could mean to different people, especially in a town that tends to support gun rights.
“We don’t want to talk about gun control and stuff, we want to be non-partisan,” Tschetter said.
The group was organized after students were contacted by local members of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, a gun control advocacy group, about organizing a March for Our Lives chapter in Billings. About 20 students from Billings' three public high schools are in the group.
Isabelle Wagler, a junior at West, recalled students getting “really offended” during conversations about gun policy.
“We should try to emphasize that we’re trying to unite people,” she said.
The group also discussed concerns about being too vague and diluting their message. The students attending the Friday meeting unequivocally rejected arming teachers as a solution — something President Donald Trump has repeatedly cited as a response or deterrent to shootings.
“To control gun violence, we can’t control it with more guns,” said Clara Bentler, a junior at Senior High.
Why walk out?
Students aren’t only directing their message at politicians. They felt that a walkout at schools was important to grab the attention of school administrators.
“It’s something that they need to consider too,” Bentler said.
The group was dissatisfied with the response they received at school after the shooting. Schools added an extra check of students' identification as they entered high schools.
Ana Strong Garcia, a senior at Senior, said her classes had "not a single discussion, not a single word about the shooting" the next day. Other students said some of their classes had student-sparked discussions.
At West High, someone pulled a fire alarm. The shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School pulled a fire alarm and opened fire on students in hallways.
The West High fire alarm “was terrifying,” Johnson said.
The students from West said teachers kept kids in rooms, and an announcement over the school’s public address system said it was a false alarm after about a minute and a half.
The group acknowledged that some students might walk out simply to get out of class, but they hoped that number would be smaller than expected. They planned to create signs in advance and distribute flyers ahead of the walkout explaining their stance.
They talked about creating an emblem — perhaps an orange ribbon — that could be worn to express support for the walkout and march.
They also talked about the possibility of punishment for skipping out of class.
“We’re going to work with (administrators),” Bentler said.
A handful of schools across the nation announced students who skipped classes to protest gun violence would face harsh punishments. Courts have ruled students still have First Amendment rights in schools, but that administrators can punish students for displays if they create too much disruption in school operations.
The group is still solidifying its plans, but aimed to sustain an advocacy beyond the march and walk out.
“We want more action,” Tschetter said, “rather than just more rhetoric.”