A steady light rain fell Wednesday morning while about 55 Baker High School students stood outside the school in silent remembrance of the 17 people who died a month ago in a shooting at a Florida high school.
The students were asked by senior class president Eva Jones-Bedolla to turn off their cellphones before the vigil began. For those 17 minutes, students complied with the request. They did not check their phones, take photos of themselves and their friends or catch up on the latest gossip of the day.
“I was really proud of the students who showed up,” Eva said. “They stood in silence.”
The Baker students joined others from across the country, including 60 at Baker Middle School, who walked out of their classrooms at 10 a.m. local time to participate in a variety of events. In addition to vigils honoring those who died on Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the walkouts included protests against gun violence and demands that Congress enact stronger gun control laws.
But in Baker City, students who walked out of classes focused only on the three adults and 14 teenagers who were killed.
Students gathered in two hallways before moving outside to the BHS track. Eva and her friends, Vicky Ortiz and Corrina Stadler, led the groups, the largest of which came out from the west doorway to a gathering spot at the south end of the track.
A short time later, a smaller group of students emerged from the doors at the east side of the building.
They gathered in a tight cluster as the vigil got under way.
Eva had planned to read off the names of the 17 people who lost their lives in the Florida school shooting.
Almost immediately, she was overcome by emotion and could not continue.
“It really hit me in that moment,” Eva said. “I didn’t expect it to be like that.”
Instead of reading the names herself, Eva turned that task over to Vicky.
“I read the names and then set my timer for 17 minutes,” Vicky said.
Principal Greg Mitchell watched from under the shelter of the eaves of the high school building as the rainy day vigil ran its course. Students then turned and made their way back to their classes.
“I’m proud of my school for the turnout,” Eva said. “It’s way more than I would have thought and it made me really happy.”
Those who attended the vigil were marked tardy for the time they spent away from class, but were marked present upon their return, Vicky said.
Mitchell denied a photographer and reporter from the Baker City Herald access to students, stating that the students had not been dismissed from class.
Regarding the photographs, Mitchell said he had concerns for the safety of students whose parents might not have signed permission forms to allow them to be photographed for publication in a newspaper because of personal issues that might place them in danger.
After conferring with Superintendent Mark Witty, Mitchell made arrangements for Vicky to call the newspaper office where she was interviewed and photographed. Eva and Corrina were interviewed by telephone for this story and submitted photographs for publication.
Eva said she was motivated to organize a walkout in part because of the fear Baker County students experienced in January when their schools were locked after a man allegedly threatened to “shoot up a school” without identifying the school. The man was actually in Washington that day.
Eva and Vicky, who are both 17, said it was unnerving to consider that BHS students faced a possible threat on Jan. 24, and then less than a month later students in the Florida school were killed in an actual shooting.
Vicky, who is Associated Student Body treasurer, said Parkland, Florida, where the shooting took place, had been named the safest city in Florida a year earlier.
“We’re a tiny little town in Eastern Oregon, so who can’t say it will be us?” she asked.
Corrina said the event was emotional for many of the students.
“It resonates with us because it could be our classmates that died,” she said.
Eva and Corrina talked about organizing an event to coincide with the national walkout and then discussed their plan with BHS teacher Annie Fale. Fale then took the idea to Mitchell. Fale was told teachers who participated would be in violation of their contract, the girls said. Eva next met with Mitchell to continue planning a student-led walkout.
She said she’d like to see legislation that could help curtail gun violence and keep guns out of the hands of people who are mentally ill, but she knows her opinions are not popular among her peers.
So, instead of making a political stand at Wednesday’s event, she decided to promote it as a memorial for those who lost their lives in the Florida shooting.
“I wanted to shift the light on the victims,” she said.
Eva and Vicky said they were leery about bringing any discussion of gun control to the vigil after experiencing the volatility of the topic in discussions in government classes.
And they’d been warned by government teacher, Kris Pepera, of rumors he’d heard that there might be a counterprotest against any stand they would take against guns, Vicky said.
“This was not for gun control. It was for loss of lives,” she said of Wednesday’s vigil.
Lance Woodward, school resource officer, was on hand at the high school and other Baker City Police officers patrolled the area around the high school and middle school during the walkouts, said Police Chief Wyn Lohner.
“There was no problem at all,” Lohner said. “Everyone seemed to be respectful.”
The BMS students gathered at the flagpole in front of their school and observed 17 minutes of silence as well. Eva’s brother, Diego, and Corrina’s sister, Brianna, joined the middle school walkout. Vicky’s sister, Jackie, who’s a BHS freshman, joined her in the walkout at the high school as well.
Corrina’s aunt, Gretchen Stadler, organized a group of community residents to demonstrate at Fourth and Broadway streets between the middle school and the District Office in support of the student walkouts.
See more in the March 16, 2018, issue of the Baker City Herald.