Aspen students’ march led by middle-schoolers who ‘have a voice’
Working to honor the one-month anniversary of the Florida school-shooting victims but abiding by the rules of middle school, a group of preteens and teens organized a community march Wednesday that drew more people than they expected.
On the National Walkout Day to remember the 17 victims of the Parkland shooting and call for action on gun violence and school safety, a group of a few hundred young students, parents and others in the community left the Aspen Middle School just after 4:15 p.m. and made the 2-mile trek to Paepcke Park on Main Street.
Carrying a bullhorn and leading the crowd, 13-year-old Mia Wells, who was one of the middle school organizers, urged on the marchers with chants of “NRA, stay away” and “What do we want? Gun control. When do we want it? Now.”
Along the way they received support via passing motorists who honked their horns as the marchers walked down Main Street, but few boos and jeers.
“From a student’s perspective, what we have known as a safe place, a second home for many kids, school is becoming a place where bad things can happen,” Wells told the crowd at the park. “I am not old enough to vote or make laws, but I have a voice. Young people need to speak up. They have voices, too.”
The national walkout movement was geared toward high schoolers to leave school at 10 a.m. A group of Aspen High students did walk out then and marched around the school, but they have a bigger protest planned for April 20, the date of the 1999 Columbine shooting in Littleton.
Because Aspen Middle School has a closed campus, students are not allowed to leave during regular hours without permission. And with parent-teacher conferences starting Wednesday after early release, the young organizers decided to wait until later in the day.
Molly Tiernan, in her fourth year as assistant principal at the middle school, helped match up concerned students.
“After the shooting in Florida, I had two different groups of students come in and ask ‘What can we do?’” said Tiernan, who also was the school’s counselor for 10 years. “We got them together, and they came up with the idea to do a community march instead of a walkout in hopes that the whole community could participate.”
In the after-school civics lesson leading up to the march, the students did research, held sign-making parties and wrote speeches, she said. Some students spoke to the crowd gathered at Paepcke Park about the Second Amendment and a “well-regulated militia” when talking about gun control, they pointed to low accuracy rates of New York City police officers when talking about arming teachers and mentioned the Vietnam War and AR-15 guns when talking about gun regulation.
Fifth-grader Bates Kurkulis, 10, was another of the young organizers and learned about the statistics surrounding school shootings.
“My cousin from Minnesota was doing it, and me and my brother, Felix, thought it was a great idea,” Bates said. “It happens more often than you think. You only hear about the big ones. There are so many more.”
Teirnan said many middle schoolers were born “in 2005 to 2008 and this has been in the newsfeed for their whole lives.”
Wells, 13, saw the social media movement for the walkout and asked administrators about it, but learned about the rules of a closed campus. Their workaround was the march after school.
“At first I thought 10 to 15 people would come,” she said. “When I saw people coming in at 3:45 instead of 4:15, I thought for sure it would just be those 30 people.
“We went to the elementary school, and when we came back there was this huge crowd of people and everyone had colorful signs and everyone was wearing orange. It was a moment of peace for me, like, ‘Wow, people are actually believing in this and they spread the word.’”
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