On Wednesday, students around Lake Tahoe walked out of their classes at 10 a.m. to honor the victims of the Parkland shooting and voice their support for safer schools.
Thousands of students around the country participated in the national walkout organized by EMPOWER, the youth branch of the Women's March organization. The group is lobbying lawmakers for stricter gun control laws in the wake of the school massacre that claimed 17 lives on Feb. 14.
At South Tahoe High School, participating students filtered out from the buildings to the circle drive where they listened to several speeches before joining in a 17-second silence for the Stoneman Douglas High School victims.
"Gun control is an issue, but it's not the main problem," said STHS student Cole Proctor. "The main problem is that in our country and our communities we have so little regard for the mental health of other people. We see people who clearly need help all the time and no one does anything to reach out to them."
"All I can think about is how easy it would be to take the money that goes into arming teachers or putting up huge fences and invest that into getting better mental health programs on campus," he continued.
Holding a sign with all 17 names of the Parkland shooting victims, sophomore Daniella Valdivia spoke about acknowledging the "wall flowers" in school.
"I believe that we need to be more kind and there needs to be more love between us," said Valdivia. "You don't know how one hello or one smile could make someone feel — like they are appreciated in this school and someone knows I exist."
Senior Tevan Martorana riled up the crowd of students with an impassioned speech on continuing the momentum of the movement started by the Parkland survivors.
"We march because we matter, a phrase that says we aren't afraid. That we refuse to live in fear. That we will not let this violence break us. This is a chance to stand up and fight against the brutality and the hate and the anger. It's a fight our generation will never give up," said Martorana.
"But how can our generation fight? What can we do that past generations have not been able to do? We need to push our politicians in a way that has never been done before. We need to show Congress that they serve the people…Seventeen people had their lives taken away from them and we need to honor their memory by making sure that no one is taken away like they were."
STHS teacher Barbara Bedwell lamented the fact that school shootings are still happening today, 20 years after the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado.
"Twenty years have passed and nothing has changed. And that's where the sadness really started to hit me," said Bedwell. "When I look out at all of you, I realized maybe the time has finally come. In the last 20 years that I've been teaching I've never seen a group of students more fired up for change than I do right now."
Following the speeches, students filed back into the school where they could register or pre-register to vote, write condolence notes to the Parkland survivors or make suggestions on how to make the school safer.
On a banner with "I March Because…" written in large letters, students attached Post-It notes with their reasons for walking out that day.
"I want to feel safe when I come to school," wrote one student. "We want to change how we handle guns and gun violence," penned another.
Other walkouts of a smaller scale took place at Incline High School and George Whittell High School. Students at South Tahoe Middle School participated in a group activity to brainstorm ways to make the school more inclusive.
CLOSE TO HOME
Over the last three months, there have been three perceived threats of violence made toward schools on the South Shore.
Back in January, students reported to police that a 10th-grade student had posted a threat on his Snapchat account about bringing a gun to school and shooting people. The student posted two photos of himself holding his two BB guns, one a 1911-style handgun, the other an AR-15 style assault rifle. Authorities determined he was not a direct threat to anyone.
At the end of February, a lockdown occurred at Tahoe Valley Elementary School due to a threat, but it was ultimately ruled a false alarm.
And just last week, a South Tahoe Middle School student allegedly made threats to bring a gun to a school dance. The student was found to have no weapons, but this time the student was arrested and booked into the El Dorado County Juvenile Treatment Center with a felony charge "due to the nature of the threats, and the number of other students who were placed in fear by them," according to police.
Though the threats have all been empty, the instances have still left their mark on students and teachers in the district.
At the March 13 Lake Tahoe Unified School District board meeting, Tahoe Valley teacher Jodi Dayberry spoke up about her experience with the recent lockdown.
"As students and teachers went into a lockdown, I opened my door to see a group of 1st grade students and their teacher walking to the music room. The fear in the students' eyes was real. The tears they cried were real," said Dayberry.
"And when I had a young girl, 6 years of age, say, 'Is there someone with a gun? I don't want to get shot,' my heart was broken. Her innocence was stolen. A piece of her childhood was taken away. School is supposed to be a safe place."
At the meeting, the school board heard a presentation from district Sustainability and Projects Supervisor Steve Brennan on proposed safety and security upgrades at all school sites.
Additional live-feed security cameras, panic buttons, reinforced windows and secured entry-points to the schools that require visitors to be buzzed in were among his suggestions.
Brennan noted that while entry to the elementary and middle schools is easier to monitor with locking back and side doors and adding "hard fronts" to the main entrance, South Tahoe High School poses a logistical challenge for security due to the multiple buildings on the campus.
A fence around the property was one of the proposed ideas, but several parents and students at the meeting spoke out against this idea.
Ultimately the board directed district Superintendent Dr. James Tarwater to continue exploring these proposals. They also agreed that a community meeting to discuss these ideas was necessary before any decisions are made, especially with the fence. No date was set.
"The parents are saying, 'I want my kids to be able to go to school peacefully' and we want the staff to be safe," said Tarwater.
The additional security cameras, previously approved by the board, will be installed in the coming months. There are currently 80-90 distributed throughout the district and another 200 will be added.