Hundreds of students in schools across the Grand Valley stood up from their desks and silently walked out of class Wednesday morning — not in agreement on politics or gun control or a solution to school violence, but unified in their grief for the 17 people who died in last month's school shooting in Florida.
School District 51 high school students organized the 17-minute demonstration — one for each of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School victims — after national walkouts were planned for March 14, a date that fell during the district's spring break.
Students at Grand Junction, Central, Fruita Monument and Palisade high schools, Bookcliff, Redlands and Orchard Mesa middle schools, and the Fruita 8-9 school walked out, with participation ranging from a handful to more than 200 per school.
FRUITA MONUMENT HIGH SCHOOL
Seventeen empty desks lined the courtyard as nearly 150 students gathered during the walkout. Students carried signs with phrases like "Thoughts and prayers don't cut it," "Enough is enough," "We don't have to live like this, we don't have to die like this," and "Protect kids, not guns."
Students tied strips of orange fabric around their wrists, a color commonly associated with hunting safety and gun violence awareness, and songs played over a portable speaker — from "Imagine" by John Lennon to "Where is the Love?" by the Black Eyed Peas.
Senior Riley Trujillo, one of the walkout organizers, said she was shocked by how many students participated in the demonstration.
"The whole purpose behind the walkout was to remember those victims and to understand that that very easily could have been us," she said.
"It's great to see kids our age standing up for what they believe in and to not be closed off to what's happening in the world, to form their own opinions about what's going on."
While Riley and some of her peers are advocating for stricter gun regulations, students like sophomore Colby Baker walked out of class to protest gun control.
Colby and a group of friends attended the walkout with signs in support of gun rights. Colby's sign read, "Gun control means using both hands."
"I do not support gun control one bit," he said. "I believe it's against our constitutional rights, in the Second Amendment."
Matt Diers, executive director of high schools at District 51, was one of a few teachers and district staff supervising the walkout.
"This is a lesson in civic responsibility, to speak up and be heard when you believe something very strongly," Diers said. "Every American citizen has that obligation, to make sure that we have our voice and when we have a voice to be heard. That's what these kids are doing on both sides."
Junior Shani Reis said she was devastated when she heard about the Florida shooting. She carried a sign that read, "Fear does not belong in schools."
"It's important that we look at the events that have happened in our country recently and recognize that there needs to be a change made to prevent more losses," she said.
Shani said she's grown up with a generation that is used to practicing lockdowns and taking precautions at school.
"But things have gotten a lot worse, and I can't imagine how much worse it will get if government leaders don't make a change," she said.
Sophomore Taylor Kincaid said she walked out to show support for the people who died in Florida and their families.
"We're not anti-gun, but we're anti-violence," she said. "We're trying to stop something like this happening again and to share our voices with our community and with our peers."
At 10:14 a.m., Senior Veniece Miller addressed the students in the courtyard. "We believe students should feel safe when they're going to school and we want to prevent senseless deaths for ourselves and for our peers," she said.
Veniece asked for a moment of silence, and students stood still. Some linked arms, or hugged, or stood looking at the ground. Then they went back to class.
GRAND JUNCTION HIGH SCHOOL
Don't wait to think about school shootings until the next one happens. Students need to stop criticizing each other on social media. Do more to stop gun violence and do it now.
Those were some of the messages three student government speakers delivered to at least 200 students during the walkout.
The gathering started out small but swelled just before 10 a.m. near the western steps of the school. Students listened attentively, huddled against a cold wind. Some police officers and mothers with posters in support of students stood at the edge of the crowd.
"This walkout should not be considered controversial because our right to live is non-negotiable," said Tia Sewell, 17, the school's senior class president.
Some students hugged. Others used their phones to record the speeches. All observed a two-minute moment of silence in respect for the minutes an active shooter terrorized the school in Florida.
Students shuffled back to class quietly a few minutes shy of the planned 17-minute event.
Tia said after the protest that she included references to the Constitution and Declaration of Independence in her speech because of push-back over gun control, but all people have rights, she said.
"If nothing else, history that I have learned in school has taught me that change does not come with complacency," she said. "Today, we as youths stand for our unalienable right for the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness that has been stolen from our peers."
During her speech Tia and a number of other students noticed the driver of a vehicle trying to attract attention, driving slowly near campus waving an oversized Confederate flag.
Some students glared, and one offered up a middle finger in the car's direction. Tia called for dialogue, even with people with whom you don't agree, using the driver of the vehicle as an example.
Sophomore Jake Griffin, 16, wanted his classmates to unite and take a stand against future school violence. He admitted finding solutions won't be easy.
"Blaming it on the person hasn't stopped the problem. The answer is bigger than that," he said during a speech. "We all have the right to believe what we want. We all agree that the shootings need to stop."
Senior Kainoa Cunningham reflected on the fact that high school students share a collective history of school shootings, starting with the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, before many of their peers were born.
"As a country, as students, we must come together in unity against more violence so this issue goes no further," the 18-year-old said.
Carri Fledderjohn's son, a sophomore at the school, was away at a track meet on Wednesday. The mother came to the walkout anyway to show her support, holding a sign with the hashtag #neveragain.
"I'm in support of listening to them," she said. "It seems like a lot of people have criticized them. As adults we need to be here."
The former teacher said high school students have never known a time without the threat of school violence. They endure lockdown drills and live with the anxiety of potential school shootings, a reality largely unknown to older generations.
"I do not want to stop until this stops," she said.
CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL
As many as 200 students filed out at 10 a.m., most of them saying they were there to commemorate the loss of life in Florida.
The first two students to reach the big, red C near the main entrance said they walked out of classes to recognize the deaths and suffering in the shooting.
"This is for the kids and the 17 people who died," said Kennadi Peterson, a 15-year-old freshman, who was accompanied by Belle Goodrich, also a 15-year-old freshman.
The trauma that their contemporaries suffered "is not something I would know about," Belle said, but, "I am thinking about them."
Patricia Harman, an 18-year-old senior, said she joined in the walkout, "Because I don't want to be in fear for my life."
As to whether students were being used or were otherwise naive, Patricia scoffed, "We're not stupid. Our lives matter. We don't deserve to be afraid."
Schools need to be made safer, she said.
"I have no problem with armed guards or with metal detectors" to reduce the possibility of armed violence inside, Patricia said.
"I'm just out here for the 17 people," said Jourdyn Husband, a 15-year-old freshman.
Many of the students tore off lengths of hunter-orange tape to wear around their wrists, signifying that they weren't game to be targeted. Several students also chanted, "No more silence, end gun violence!"
Nonetheless, said junior Aubrey Snowden, 17, "I didn't want it to be a gun thing."
Likewise, "I'm here to respect the 17 people who died," said 14-year-old freshman Evelyn Sito. "This is in memory of their deaths, it's not against the Second Amendment."
While another group of Second Amendment supporters rallied away from the main body of students, Dakota Mortensen, a 15-year-old freshman, wore his U.S. Army cap as he stood near the Central "C."
"I'm a proud gun owner and an ROTC cadet," Dakota said.
He's tired of being accosted for owning a "machine of death" as a gun owner and said he suspected the walkout's goal of memorialization would be hijacked into an anti-gun rally.
Guns aren't bad, Dakota said. "You need someone to pull the trigger."
Gun owners should be left alone, said 15-year-old freshman Kyle Niems.
"If you don't like guns," Kyle said, "go do your own thing."
PALISADE HIGH SCHOOL
Students participating in the walkout spent 17 minutes in silence, surrounding the flagpole just in front of the school's main entrance.
Between 80 and 100 students filed out of the front doors right at 10 a.m. and after a quick announcement from one student, they remained in silence until Principal Dan Bollinger told them that 17 minutes had passed and sent them back to class.
A few students held signs and one student exclaimed, "I like guns," as he walked out of the school. One sign read, "Not a gun problem, but a people problem," while another stated, "Arm our campuses, protect our schools." A third sign said, "I want to feel safe," with the word "want" crossed out and replaced with "need."
Junior Corinne Curtis, 17, said many of her fellow students didn't participate in the walkout, either because they chose not to come to school or the protest didn't align with what they stood for.
Corinne said she participated because she is angry that nothing seems to change regarding school shootings and she is tired of seeing peers at others schools dying.
"I don't want to die here. I don't want anyone to die in any school," she said. "This is a place where we can grow and should be safe."
Junior Zoe Riches, 16, echoed that sentiment and added that some of the criticism posted on the internet that the students participating were either naive, didn't understand the issues or were just looking to get out of class should be ignored.
"I'd rather walk out of here than be carried out in a body bag," Zoe said. "There's not much we can do, but we have to do something so that others will take action for us."
Some of that criticism came from fellow students as Corinne Curtis said she got some scowling looks from others when she got up to join the walkout. However, she said she feels nonviolent protesting has worked in the past to enact change.
Junior Avery DeVaul, 17, said while many students did not support their cause, their teachers were more supportive.
"The majority respect that we're trying to make change," she said.
Staff writers Amy Hamilton, Gary Harmon and Joe Vaccarelli contributed to this report.