#NeverAgain protest

‘Really scared and extremely angry’: Why Colorado students are walking out of school Wednesday

From left, Emanuel Lamboy, Jackie Estrada Hernandez, and Elena Skaro, eighth-graders at Grant Beacon Middle School. (Melanie Asmar)

They want this time to be different.

Whether they’re walking out of school on Wednesday to call for new gun laws or whether they’re “walking in” to broader community conversations about violence, Colorado students told Chalkbeat they want the 17 lives lost a month ago in Florida to serve as an impetus for changes that have proven elusive for years.

Students at dozens of schools around Colorado are planning to walk out at 10 a.m. Wednesday, part of a national action to commemorate the victims of the shooting in Parkland, Florida. EMPOWER, the youth branch of the Women’s March, has recorded more than 2,500 planned walkouts around the country.

The issue of mass shootings has a terrible resonance in Colorado, where the murder of 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in 1999 shaped a generation. Last year, that attack fell off the list of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in modern American history.

Colorado has been the site of two other school shootings that quickly passed from national awareness: the 2006 Platte Canyon High School hostage crisis, in which Emily Keyes was killed, and the 2013 Arapahoe High School shooting, in which Claire Davis was killed.

Students in the Denver metro area also have a history of political activism. They’ve walked out in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, and in support of classmates and teachers affected by President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. Unlike in other parts of the country, many, though not all, school leaders here support and facilitate these walkouts, rather than threaten students with punishment.

At the same time, some students have chosen other ways to respond that they find more meaningful than walking out of school.

Here’s what these Colorado students had to say about why they’re doing what they’re doing:

“I was terrified of going to high school because I had heard of Columbine.”

Mariah Clute, a junior at Grandview High School in the Cherry Creek School District, was upset and worried after the shooting in Parkland. People with unstable minds know schools are easy targets, she said. It’s a feeling she’s lived with since middle school.

Back then, she said, “I was terrified of going to high school because I had heard of Columbine.”

Mariah Clute, a junior at Grandview High School in the Cherry Creek School District.

Clute, 17, plans to participate in Wednesday’s walkout because she wants to see real changes that make schools safer.

“I feel like even though this movement is getting pretty big, I think it will get even more attention as people show that they’re serious and they care about it.”

While Clute acknowledges that gun control is a “political minefield,” she said she’d like to see a return to an Obama-era rule that prevented some people with mental health conditions from buying guns.

She’d also like to see stepped-up school security. She’s heard talk about arming teachers and while she thinks that could help, she said, “I don’t feel like all teachers should have guns, at the same time.”

“Really scared and extremely angry”

Saroja Manickam, 15, is one of several students at Eagle Valley High School in western Colorado helping organize Wednesday’s walkout at her school. The sophomore, who said she’s been doing lockdown drills at school since first grade, was moved to get involved after the deadly shooting in Florida.

Saroja Manickam, a sophomore at Eagle Valley High School in western Colorado.

“When I read the news about the Parkland shooting I was just really scared and extremely angry about what was happening,” she said.

Manickam believes the Parkland shooting has resonated so strongly across the country because, “It’s the youth, it’s the kids from the actual shooting talking about it.”

Manickam said the point of her high school’s walkout is to spur action, though she also recognizes the tension in talking about gun control in a rural community where many people use firearms recreationally.

“We’re not saying we need to take away all guns,” she said. “This is to honor the victims and say something should be done.”

Manickam and her fellow walkout organizers have met with their principal and gotten permission to walk along a stretch of road in front of the school. She hasn’t made the sign she’ll carry yet, but she’s considering this message: “Could I be next?”

“Staying in and finishing what they started”

Eighteen-year-old Jabari Lottie is not planning to walk out of school Wednesday. Instead, the senior at northeast Denver’s Manual High School is helping plan a “walk-in” later this month so students from several nearby schools can come together to talk about gun violence.

The events that occurred happened while students were in the building,” Lottie said. “I feel like walking out is almost more disrespectful than staying in and finishing what they started.”

Manual High School student Jabari Lottie. (Courtesy Jabari Lottie)

Lottie has participated in protests before, joining other Manual students in walking out in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. He was also part of a walk-in at which Manual students hosted Denver police officers for a conversation about the relationship between law enforcement and the community. He said he preferred the conversation.

“We did a silent walkout and yeah, the people saw us in the streets, policemen saw us in the streets, but at the end of the day, it’s only a representation of what we think,” Lottie said. “But (with) a walk-in, we can really have a discussion.”

The planned walk-in on gun violence will feature students leading conversations about the necessity of guns and the dangers of them, the arguments for and against stricter gun control laws, and how other countries regulate guns compared to the United States, Lottie said.

Lottie said he believes something has to be done to keep people from killing each other with guns, a problem he sees as uniquely American. “If we all didn’t have guns, these altercations would not end in violence and mass shootings wouldn’t occur,” he said.

“It really does take a group of people to say we can’t take this anymore.”

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, a senior at Hinkley High School in Aurora, said the Parkland shooting had a magnified impact at her school when students were placed on lockout the same day.

It’s not entirely clear what happened. There was a report of someone in the school with a gun, Aurora police said, but a gun was never found. Three juveniles were charged with trespassing. A spokesman for the school district said the lockout was a precaution, and the police determined the school was safe.

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, Hinkley High School, Aurora (Courtesy Brianna Mauricio-Perez)

Mauricio-Perez said many students and parents feel the school district didn’t provide enough information about the incident and some question whether the correct response was used if the threat was reported inside the school.

“It started making us feel unsafe,” Mauricio-Perez said. “Even though nobody was hurt this time, what is it going to take for something to change?”

When she walks out Wednesday, Mauricio-Perez wants to send a message to her Aurora school district that communication should improve between students, parents, and officials so that all can work together to help keep schools safe. She also wants lawmakers to consider gun regulations.

“Things have to change,” she said. “It really does take a group of people to say we can’t take this anymore.”

“We need to show that this time will be different.”

A few weeks ago, Madeline Dean and several of her classmates from the Denver School of Science and Technology’s Stapleton campus went to the Colorado Capitol to testify against a bill that would have allowed people with concealed carry permits to bring handguns on to school grounds.

This bill, sponsored by a survivor of the Columbine massacre who now serves as the top Republican in the House, is part of Colorado’s perennial gun debate. Every year, Democrats kill this legislation after hours of emotional testimony.

It was there that students from DSST: Stapleton heard about the walkouts and started talking about doing their own. Many people thought Sandy Hook would be a turning point, said Dean, a senior, especially because the victims were so young. But nothing happened. She hopes this time is different.

“There is a lot of fear when you go to school and when you have lockdown drills,” Dean said. “In a lot of ways, students are directly affected by this, but they haven’t spoken out before. … Now that it’s happened again, we need to show that this time will be different, and we won’t accept this anymore.”

Dean sees the problem of gun violence as much broader than just mass shootings.

“A lot of people aren’t thinking about how it’s connected to other issues like police brutality and mental health,” she said. “We don’t talk about that, but people who care about those issues should care about this one.”

“We are honoring those people who lost their lives, with action.”

Caitlin Danborn, a 17-year-old junior at Arvada West High School in Jeffco, decided to organize a walkout at her school because she was inspired by the students in Florida, upset that shootings continue to happen, and worried after threats were made at her school just days after the shooting in Florida.

Caitlin Danborn, 17, Arvada West High School, Jeffco. (Courtesy photo)

“That really spoke to everyone at our school,” Danborn said. “We’ve had tightened security measures since then. We have to do things like sign out when we go to the bathroom.”

School administrators heard about Danborn’s plans when her Facebook event for the walkout had about 50 people confirming they would participate. Working with the administration, teachers, and other students, Danborn said the plans for Wednesday’s walkout will call for students to walk across the school to a field where students will form the shape of a heart. A drone will take aerial photos. Throughout the day, there will be letter-writing stations at the school where students can write a letter to their representatives.

“We wanted to have something tangible and very intentional that would be very visible,” Danborn said.

She thinks it’s unfortunate that students who are in fear have to stand up for change, but says that is why things are different after the Parkland shootings.

“I hope that people can see unity, and they can see that school safety and gun violence are two issues kids feel passionately about — enough that we’re willing to get up and walk out and do something visible,” Danborn said. “I also hope they can see that we are honoring those people who lost their lives, with action.”

“People will stop and say, ‘What are these kids doing?’”

Eighth-graders Ada Youngstrom, Lillian Lemme, and Rachel Zizmor say they’re motivated to walk out of school by love for the community they have at Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver.

“One of the big things we were talking about when we presented to our classmates is that one person with a gun could destroy our community,” Youngstrom, 13, said. “Skinner is a family, and gun violence has made us understand that that could go away so fast.”

From left: Lillian Lemme, Rachel Zizmor, Ada Youngstrom, all eighth-graders at Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver. (Courtesy Ada Youngstrom)

The students all come from politically active families, attended the Women’s March, and frequently discuss current events in social studies class. They’re frustrated that previous school shootings haven’t created any policy changes, and they don’t want this one to fade from the public eye.

“One thing I really want adults and politicians to take from this is that we’re not going to forget anymore,” Youngstrom said. “I’m never going to forget about the 17 (people) who are killed. From the day of the shooting on, we are holding their memories and their lives in our hands. I’m not going to just stand by.”

The organizers are hoping that between 300 and 600 students will walk out of school. Seventeen students will stand outside the school to represent the 17 lives lost as their classmates march out to West 38th Avenue, the main thoroughfare in the neighborhood.

“What we’re hoping to accomplish is that because 38th is a busy street, people will stop and say, ‘What are these kids doing?’ and know that we are doing something and maybe become aware,” said Lemme, 14. “If there’s a procession of 300 to 600 students, that’s not something you can ignore.”

The students said they know that walkouts by themselves won’t change laws, but it’s a way to honor the lives lost and keep the pressure on policy makers.

“This is powerful because it’s silent to show respect for the students in Florida, but by itself, it’s not going to change anything,” Zizmor, 14, said. “It’s a step in the right direction. … Just because we’re kids and we’re small doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference.”

“17 different things that would make a change”

The eighth-graders organizing the walkout at Denver’s Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver are hoping to focus on more than just the debate over gun control. Part of their goal is to give their fellow students different ways to honor the 17 victims of the Parkland shooting.

They’ve timed their walkout to last 17 minutes, with sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders each leaving school through different doors and taking similarly timed routes to the same public park. There, the students will read the names of the 17 victims and hold a moment of silence for each.

But for those who don’t want to walk out, or who want to do something more, the students are offering another option – one with its very own hashtag: #What’sYour17? The idea is to encourage teenagers to do “17 different things that would make a change,” said 13-year-old Jackie Estrada Hernandez, one of the students planning the walkout.

Those things could be as simple as smiling at 17 new people, the students said.

“It would help the community out because some people have problems, but if you smile and give them a compliment or something, it would probably make their day,” said Elena Skaro, 14.

Emanuel Lamboy, 13, had a different take.

“I imagine I’m smiling at the 17 people that died and trying to commemorate them,” he said.

 

school support

When students miss school, they fall behind. Here’s how one group is curbing absenteeism.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Two of Agape's staff members work with students on reading at Whitney Achievement Elementary School. The staff members, though employed by the Memphis nonprofit, are integrated into school life.

When Crystal Bullard moved to Memphis from the Bahamas last year, she was looking for a new life and a better education for her three young children.

What she found was an overwhelming school system that was hard to navigate, and an environment where her children felt like outsiders.

Her children, ages 4, 7 and 9, were initially bullied at Whitney Achievement Elementary School, the North Memphis school she chose because it was closest to her home. The bullying meant her kids didn’t want to go to school. For Bullard, missing a day or two was a common problem at the beginning of last school year.

“When I came here, I didn’t know nothing. I had nothing,” Bullard said. “I came to this school because it was the first I found. But it was so hard to get the kids up and here every day. We struggled with that for many weeks.”

Bullard is not alone in her daily battle to get the kids to school. Almost a fifth of Memphis students are considered chronically absent, which means they missed at least 18 days during the school year. Research has shown chronic absenteeism is linked to negative outcomes for students, including lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and even a greater risk of entering the criminal justice system.

Absenteeism has such a large impact on learning, districts are under pressure from new national legislation to include chronic absenteeism data in how they evaluate schools.

In Memphis, a local nonprofit is working to improve attendance numbers. Agape Child & Family Services places its employees in schools throughout Memphis to help with attendance, behavior, and academic issues.

Bullard said her life began to change when her family joined the Agape program. The three full-time Agape workers at Whitney walked Bullard through why it was crucial for her kids to come to school every day. They provided her with school supplies and uniforms, and tutored her children. Agape also provided counseling for Bullard and her children through another part of its organization.

“My kids have too many friends now,” Bullard said. “They aren’t afraid, they’re excited to come to school. My kids are 100 percent better now than when we came. We still have issues to work out, but we feel welcome.”

For schools like Whitney Elementary, days of missed instruction can quickly put students behind academically. Whitney was taken over in 2012 by the state’s Achievement School District, which is trying to turn around Tennessee’s worst-performing schools. Every day of instruction matters in their efforts to boost student achievement, Whitney principal LaSandra Young said.

“Our attendance is low at the start of the year because students have transferred or moved,” said Young. The school currently enrolls 263 kids — Agape helps the school track students down.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Crystal Bullard’s children started preschool and elementary school at Whitney last year.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as they don’t have school supplies yet or are struggling with transportation,” Young said. “The extra support they provide is crucial because every day of attendance really does matter.”

Charity Ellis, one of Agape’s staff members at Whitney, said her job can look very different day-to-day, but working closely with students is consistent. Some days Agape pulls students out of class to work intensely on reading or math skills. Or if students are struggling with behavior in class, Agape staff members will pull the students into the hallway to speak with them and calm them down.

Agape staff also try to stay in constant communication with parents, especially if their kids are missing school, Ellis said.

If parents are running late, they might decide to keep their student at home rather than bring them for a half day, Ellis said. “But when we communicate with them how important every hour of learning is, they get that. Sometimes all it takes is one conversation and how deeply we care about their kids.”

Agape worked with 82 kids at Whitney Elementary last year, who were chosen by the school, including Bullard’s three children. About 90 percent of those students are now attending at least 90 percent of the school year, said David Jordan, CEO of Agape.

The program has grown every year from when it began in 2013 with 113 students. Now, more than 550 students are a part of Agape programs in 16 schools throughout the Frayser, Raleigh, Hickory Hill, and Whitehaven neighborhoods — and they are all now at school for at least 85 percent of the school year. This is just shy of their goal for Agape students to attend more than 90 percent of the year.

For comparison, 57 percent of all students in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District attend school for more than 90 percent of the year, Jordan said.

Jordan emphasized that keeping kids in school goes beyond daily attendance — the program also helps students with academics and behavior, so they don’t miss school because of suspensions. Agape helps out parents, too.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Whitney Principal LaSandra Young (right) hugs a student who is pulled out of class to work with Agape.

“A lot of our parents are underemployed and dealing with trauma,” Jordan said. “We provide family therapy, but also job coaching and help. We see this as a two-generation approach, the parents and their children are in this together.”

Bullard said the family counseling provided by Agape at Whitney has made a huge difference in her family’s mental health. When they first moved in 2017, Sergio, her oldest child, struggled with his behavior at school and he was sometimes pulled out of class.

“We’ve been through a lot,” Bullard said. “When Sergio first came here, he had a mean spirit in him. A don’t-care attitude. But at our sessions, he opened up and up. He’s still fighting with his sister, but it isn’t the rage it used to be. He’s calmed down a lot.”

Sergio also had a habit of hiding his school work from her, Bullard said. That’s changed, too, and he enjoys showing off what he’s learning to his mom.

“Now he likes to say big words that he knows I don’t know,” Bullard said. “But it’s great. We’ve never had this kind of support before.”

Jordan said that stories like Bullard’s are encouraging but acknowledges there’s still a lot of work to be done. He said he’s hopeful Agape will be able to add more and more students to the program every year.

“We know that keeping kids in school consistently is one of the things that works,” Jordan said. “We also know that students in under-resourced neighborhoods in our city need more support. The schools need more people who can help. We can provide that.”

Here’s the full list of schools Agape is in, broken down by neighborhood:

out of pocket

Pencils, shelving, wiggly chairs: What Colorado teachers bought for their classrooms — and why

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry provided the pencil totes, floor dots, balls and wiggle seats, and everything you see on the shelves out of her own pocket.

The rugs and bean bag chairs, the workboxes full of hands-on learning games, the file folders that help her track student progress — all came out of special education teacher Laura Keathley’s own pocket.

Robyn Premo, a high school science teacher, buys styrofoam and cans, glass rods and balloons, patches of fur and s’mores ingredients — just about all the materials except beakers that her students need to do hands-on experiments.

Marcea Copeland-Rodden, a middle school social studies teacher, bought an air-conditioning unit for her classroom because it was so hot students were getting bloody noses.

And everyone buys loads and loads of pencils.

“I don’t think that not having a pencil is a reason a kid should not learn today,” Premo said.

There’s nothing new about teachers spending money on their classrooms, but as rising housing prices and stagnant wages put more pressure on working families and as academic expectations rise even in kindergarten, teachers have to dig deep to meet their students’ basic needs and outfit their school rooms.

A national survey by the U.S. Department of Education found that 94 percent of teachers spend their own money for their students, with the average teacher spending $479 in the 2015-16 school year, the most recent data available.

When the Colorado Education Association surveyed more than 2,000 members in 2017, they reported spending an average of $656 out of their own pocket on classroom supplies.

The usual caveat applies: These numbers are self-reported.

To better understand what this looks like in Colorado classrooms, Chalkbeat reached out to teachers around the state to ask how much they spent out of pocket, what they bought, and why.

The teachers who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey work in districts large and small, urban and rural, and spent anywhere from $75 to $2,000. Most respondents spent several hundred dollars, and the majority said they do not get a stipend for school supplies.

Their spending covers the most basic of classroom supplies — pens, pencils, glue sticks, crayons, paper, folders, notebooks — but also the things that make classrooms feel inviting, that make learning engaging, that help a kid get through the day. Teachers bought snacks and spare clothes, earbuds for students to listen to audio books as part of reading lessons, wiggly chairs and yoga balls for fidgety learners, classroom decorations, tissues and wipes, prizes for good work and good behavior, fish for the fish tank, storage bins and shelving and fabric for makeshift blinds.

Premo teaches chemistry and physics at Westminster High School. Her department gets a $3,000 supply budget for the high school’s 2,400 kids. She emphasizes that she thinks her school is doing everything it can, but if she didn’t reach into her own pocket, her students would mostly experience science in online simulations.

“That is not, in my opinion, sufficient for rigorous, authentic science instruction, so I make the personal contributions to give my kids those learning opportunities,” she said.

Premo spent $2,000 getting ready for the school year, the most of any teacher who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey. She said she’s able to contribute more than many teachers, so she does.

“There are some fantastic online simulations, but kids learn better when they get to put their hands on things,” she said.

Fur patches help demonstrate static electricity, and s’mores help illustrate principles of chemical reactions. All these materials add up, and many of them are consumed in the process of lab work.

If Premo didn’t spend her own money, “we would run out of pencils very quickly. And we would run out of lab materials, and they would not be able to do anything hands-on. And we would lose our ability to be creative. We would work very bare-bones. It would be a lot of listening, a lot of videos.”

Laura Henry teaches kindergarten in Aurora Public Schools. It’s her 29th year in the classroom, and as kindergarten has moved away from play and more toward academics, she’s spent more and more of her own money on curriculum supplies.

Her school provides $500 a semester to each grade level, which has to be shared among three teachers, and the money goes fast. Teachers also get $10 a month for copying, which she burns through quickly, so she bought her own printer just for school use.

Because most of the students come from low-income families, the school tries to keep the school supply list modest, closer to $25, but only about three-quarters of the students bring in supplies.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry’s classroom after it has been cleaned during the summer. With the exception of the red shelf, a few alternative seating items, and the pencil coat rack, these items are school purchased.

She spent about $500 of her own money getting ready for the school year, on everything from folders to hold student poems to snacks and wipes to materials for dramatic play, building toys, puppet theater, books, and more.

“Kindergarten is supply-heavy because we use construction paper and glue like there is no tomorrow,” she said.

Many of our survey respondents said they don’t use online fundraisers like Donors Choose because the only people who donate are friends and family, and teachers feel bad hitting them up over and over again. Henry encounters the same dilemma, but she did turn to it this year for $550 in science and engineering supplies: gears, a light table, animal X-rays, a microscope and more.

Another advantage of Donors Choose: The money she puts into it herself is tax deductible, unlike the rest of what she spends on her classroom.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Kindergarten teacher Laura Henry purchased the housekeeping table and chairs, everything on the wall and shelves, the books in the bin, tool bench, and playground buckets for her Aurora classroom.

Henry said she used to sometimes feel resentful about spending her own money, when her friends get reimbursed for their work expenses, but now she “rolls with it” as part of the teaching profession.

But she sees the lack of supplies as one more stumbling block for young teachers.

“I see these new teachers come in, and they’re so ready and eager to make a difference, and they don’t know how they get supplies or how they get copies,” she said. “I don’t know that our school board is even fully aware of how much we’re lacking at the classroom level. I don’t need 8,000 consultants to help me. I need my classroom funded.”

Keathley runs a multi-needs special education room with two paraprofessionals at Avery-Parsons Elementary in the Buena Vista district in the Arkansas Valley. She spent $485 getting the classroom ready this year. A lot of that money went to filing systems that help the teachers keep track of each student’s needs and progress. It also went to bulletin board supplies. These boards serve as the “411 wall” with everything kids need to know for the day, from what their classroom job is to what outside appointments they have.

PHOTO: Laura Keathley
The bulletin board in Laura Keathley’s Buena Vista classroom serves as a 411 wall for her students. She purchases all the supplies for the board herself.

Keathley and her team used their own money to outfit the “crash corner,” where students go when they need to decompress with fidget toys in a giant bean bag chair, and to make workboxes with activities that students can work on independently throughout the day.

Keathley said she hardly asks her parents for any school supplies.

“We know that a lot of times parents of kids with disabilities, we know their money goes other places and they spend so much on special things for their kids, we don’t want to ask them,” she said.

Without her own investment in the classroom, it would be a very different place.

“I could go with what the school provided me and stay within my budget, but my classroom would not be the place I would like it to be,” she said. “We wouldn’t have rugs. We wouldn’t have nearly the supplies to give snacks or do cooking in the classroom. Our desks would be much more utilitarian, and we wouldn’t have much on the walls.”

Copeland-Rodden teaches seventh grade social studies at Pueblo Academy of the Arts in southern Colorado.

She spent $500 this year, more than most, because she dropped $350 on the air conditioning unit. It might seem like an extravagance, but after years of buying more and more fans, for minimal relief, it felt like a necessity.

“It’s just really hot in the classroom,” she said. “We have kids get bloody noses, that’s how bad it is. By sixth and seventh period, everybody is done. They don’t do their work. They fall asleep. They get cranky and angry at each other. It makes it tough on everyone.”

She also bought materials for Civil War shadow puppets and other projects that will make history come alive, but most of her classroom spending is on basic supplies. She doesn’t feel like she can ask parents, most of whom are low-income, to pay for supplies when she only has their child for one period a day. Out of 130 students, one brought in a box of tissues at the start of the school year.

“I spend so much on pencils,” she said. “It’s not just once. I go through a big 50-pack of pencils every month. Every class there’s at least one kid who has lost a pencil. I’ve given up trying to get back the pencils.”

She used to ask kids for something in exchange for the pencil to prompt them to return it, but too many kids had nothing to give.

“One boy said, ‘Here’s a shoe,’ and I said, ‘I don’t want your shoe,’” she said. “I have kids walking from class to class with nothing.”

Teaching has been this way for a long time, and the teachers who talked to Chalkbeat don’t see it changing anytime soon.

“If we all collectively agreed we weren’t going to pay for school supplies, maybe eventually someone would do something,” Premo said. “But I don’t want to risk this year’s kids to make that point.”