At exactly 1 p.m. Thursday, a small group of students at Yaakoosge Daakahidi Alternative High School stepped into the snowy and windy afternoon, knowing that they wouldn’t be let back in for the rest of the day.
Led by senior Kiara Christopherson, they walked to a spot near the flagpole in front of the school and stood there for 17 minutes despite a winter storm warning being in effect. Each minute was to honor one of the 17 victims of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
It’s YDHS school policy that if students leave the building during the school day, YDHS Principal Kristin Garot explained, they are not allowed back in class until the end of the session, either the morning or the afternoon session. Leaving in the middle of their third-period class at 1 p.m. Thursday, Christopherson and her classmates weren’t going to be allowed back in until school ended at 3 p.m.
“We still need to voice our opinions or nothing is going to be done about it,” Christopherson said. “… One small statement could change someone’s life. It could save someone.”
Christopherson, along with seniors Nathaniel Hensley-Williams, Aunna Hodson and Delilah Maki, juniors Joseph Casulucan and Nick Porter and freshman Tray Lee, stood out in the wind and shared experiences about times they felt threatened in school.
They reflected on bomb threats that had happened during their time in school in Juneau, and Porter recalled the threat of a school shooting at Thunder Mountain High School during the previous school year. The main intent of the demonstration was to show their support for the victims of the shooting and that violence in schools affects students across the nation.
Christopherson said her cousin was killed in a school shooting about 15 years ago, and said she doesn’t want her friends or future children to have to deal with violence at school.
The students said some teachers were in favor of their demonstration while other teachers were not. The students began planning the gesture Wednesday and said they believed Garot and the teachers were on board. When they arrived at school Thursday, they said, the school’s stance had changed.
Garot said she had only heard rumblings of the demonstration taking place, and said she was supportive of the students. She still felt she had to go by the school’s policy, though.
“If I let them in, it’s that idea that I have to be equitable,” Garot said. “If I kicked someone out yesterday, or not let them come back in if they chose to leave, I have to stick by the policies and procedures.”
Students were still able to stand in the lobby afterward, but were not allowed past the front desk.
In a statement, Juneau School District Superintendent Mark Miller said he supports students exercising their right to express themselves, but it needs to be done safely and responsibly.
“We also understand our responsibility to ensure that schools are safe and organized places of learning for all students regardless of their beliefs and views,” Miller said in the statement. “We will continue to work with all students to ensure they can responsibly exercise their First Amendment rights within a safe and organized school environment.”
The Juneau School District has taken strides in recent years to improve its response to an active shooter. In 2014, a student brought a gun to TMHS and the district’s alert system didn’t notify parents until long after the incident was resolved. Misinformation spread quickly.
In 2015, the school district (as well as other local organizations) adopted the ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) system. This system trains people to respond to active shooters, not having a step-by-step instruction system but by preparing them to adapt to the scenario. There are booklets in each classroom with instructions for teachers and students.
Still, the students who stood outside the high school Thursday felt their voices and their concerns about violence in schools needed to be heard. Though YDHS is the smallest of Juneau’s three high schools, and only a handful of students stood out in the winter weather Thursday, they agreed that it was important to speak out.
“The smallest percentage still matters,” Maki said.
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.