Berkeley protests on March 14, 2018. Photo: Pete Rosos

Seventeen minutes, 17 gut-wrenching eulogies.

Hundreds of Berkeley High School students walked out of their second-period classes Wednesday morning, joining their peers throughout Berkeley and the rest of the country in a coordinated effort to mourn the victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February.

Getting soaked by the rain, or shielded from it with colorful umbrellas, the Berkeley High students delivered impassioned speeches, read poems, and formed a human peace-sign on their football field, demanding that the anguish in Parkland, Florida, happen “never again.”

The groups of students came flooding into their courtyard from all campus buildings around 9:40 a.m.

Chatter in the crowd partially drowned out introductory addresses, but gave way to somber silence at 10 a.m., as students read aloud 17 minute-long eulogies — one for each of the victims of the tragedy in Florida.

“She was a normal teenager, who loved the beach and watching The Flash every week,” said a Berkeley High student about Cara Loughran, 14.

“Her rabbi remembers her as having a smile full of sunshine,” said another speaker about Meadow Pollack, 18.

Berkeley High sophomore Kira Galbraith, 15, was in charge of researching the victims ahead of the demonstration Wednesday. In an interview the night before, she said the experience made her grasp that these names and numbers were people, like her and her classmates. The goal Wednesday, she said, was to humanize the victims for the rest of Berkeley High too.

Berkeley High students form a human peace sign on the football field. Photo: Pete Rosos

For Galbraith, part of the Amnesty International club, the tragedy hit home the morning after, when Principal Erin Schweng said on the morning announcements that she was having a hard time grappling with the news of the shooting, especially because Marjory Stoneman Douglas High is a similar size as Berkeley High.

“That small similarity really hit me,” Galbraith said. “They were people that just went to school and never went home.”

The Amnesty International group was among several clubs that organized the Wednesday walkout. Berkeley High Students Demand Action, a group advocating for “common sense gun reform” began planning the event, and was quickly joined by a number of others, including the Berkeley High Black Student Union, Muslim Student Union, Women’s Student Union and others.

The school administration embraced the students’ plan, helping facilitate the event. Several school and district leaders, Berkeley School Board members and Berkeley High teachers and staff came to the protest Wednesday, while designated teachers stayed behind with students who chose not to walk out of class.

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Students bash politicians: ‘Today we must move past our primitive ways’

Members of each of the organizing clubs spoke Wednesday about what the Parkland tragedy meant to the students they represent.

“We take gun violence very seriously,” said Claire Oby of the Black Student Union. “Many of us have family members who were victims.”

Berkeley High Walkout. Photo: Nancy Rubin

Students from the Best Buddies club, which pairs students with developmental disabilities with classmate “buddies,” said two of the Florida victims were members of their school’s chapter.

The tenor of the speeches grew more forceful later in the rainy morning. Students’ anger and pain were laid bare as they spoke about personal tragedies and cursed at politicians.

“I’m not here to tell you that the constant threat of being shot at school can destroy our ability to learn — because you know that,” yelled one student into the microphone. “Today we must move past our primitive ways. When leaders act like children and children act like leaders, you know change is coming,” he said.

One student said she had thought about the best place to hide in a Berkeley High bathroom if a shooter came through the campus. She asked who else in the crowd had similar thoughts. Hands flew up.

Later, during lunch, the Berkeley chapter of the League of Women Voters set up tables where students could register to vote. In April, students will participate in a national day of action, with more emphasis on pushing for a ban on assault weapons, and background checks before purchasing guns.

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The purpose of the Wednesday walkout was instead to “show our solidarity with Parkland students, show we’re sharing in their pain with this tragedy and also want change to come out of it,” said junior Roni Weissman, 16, co-president of Berkeley High Students Demand Action, in an interview earlier this week.

For the high school students, it has been both disturbing and inspiring to see the Parkland survivors, teenagers like them, become the fiercely vocal leaders of the anti-gun violence movement. Some Berkeley High students got the chance to meet with Matt Deisch, a Parkland graduate whose sister survived the shooting.

Berkeley High history teacher Becky Villagrán, the faculty advisor of Berkeley High Students Demand Action, said she wanted her students to know they too could seize their own platform.

“Students in Parkland have been galvanized because they’re victims. Young people need to know that anybody can be an expert on these issues of government,” she said, in an interview earlier this week. “We can’t let these people do it alone. All student have a right to dignity and a right to life. If they have solidarity with these teens, real change can happen. All of them within next couple years will be able to vote.”

Villagrán began teaching lessons on gun violence long before the latest tragedy.

“To a certain extent lots of people have become numb,” she said. “I refuse to do that. Several times a year I’ll put everything I’m doing aside to talk about a recent attack.”

Berkeley High and other schools have held lockdown drills to try to prepare the campus for whatever could happen. Berkeley Unified uses a protocol called ALICE, which stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate. The district has worked with Berkeley Police.

Villagrán said she has mixed feelings about the approach, and the drills.

“That we have to plan at school that somebody might come into a classroom and kill you — it’s bizarro land,” she said.

Walkout at Washington Elementary. Photo: Liz Schultz

Schools across Berkeley walk out in unison

Though Berkeley High’s protest was likely the largest, it was hardly the only walkout or memorial to occur at a Berkeley school Wednesday.

At Willard Middle School, students and staff marched around the perimeter of the campus in a “solidarity march,” carrying signs. Across town at King, a group planned to form a circle on the yard “to show the unity of our community,” said Principal Janet Levenson earlier in the week. The school’s Compassion Club made signs as well. Students at Longfellow Middle School also took action.

Multiple Berkeley Unified elementary schools held events too, including Rosa Parks Elementary and Cragmont Elementary. Ecole Bilingue Middle School in West Berkeley held a walkout as well. About 150 UC Berkeley students and staff gathered for 17 minutes of silence on Sproul Plaza.

Students and staff at the East Bay School for Boys in downtown Berkeley formed a “silent circle” to honor victims. Participants “will then individually come into the middle and read a short first-person bio of the victims then lie down,” before forming a peace sign, wrote student Samuel Kaplan Pettus, 14, in an email to Berkeleyside.

Students at The Berkeley School display photos of the Parkland victims at their Wednesday walkout. Photo: Carmen Scott

At The Berkeley School in West Berkeley, students held up photos of the victims and sang “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

“We are hoping to communicate our sorrow and disappointment that something like this could happen in school, a place where children should feel safe,” said eighth-grader Leeam Levy in a press release.

Elsewhere in the Bay Area, some schools did not embrace students’ plans to walk out. Bentley School, in Lafayette and Oakland, decided to “walk in,” encouraging students to participate in actions with their peers and teachers on campus. Some students decided to walk out anyway but were told to come back and then were picked up in school vans.

“While students felt their actions were a political statement, they were in fact deeply disrespectful to agreements made through an inclusive process for community engagement,” wrote Bryan Smith, the high school principal, to parents. “Their choices and actions are particularly alarming in these times when everyone is especially concerned about student safety.”

At the Berkeley High event, members of the media were sequestered in a designated area, where it was difficult at times to hear the speeches. Reporters were not allowed to interview students until they left for lunch.

After allowing journalists to sign up to cover the walkout, Berkeley Unified on Tuesday afternoon announced that only one print reporter, one photographer and one broadcast reporter would be allowed access and asked to share their notes with other outlets. The district said it had fielded numerous media requests and could not safely accommodate all without disrupting the event, though the number of requests was not released. Berkeleyside protested the restrictions, arguing that the plan would be prohibitive to the press and unfair to news consumers. Ultimately, the district acknowledged that Berkeley readers rely on media coverage and allowed all local, but no national, outlets in.

During the demonstration, school and district leaders stood on the sidelines, supporting the student organizers.

“I was watching the students and listening to them and just feeling like they have the most powerful voices,” Schweng said after the event. “Adults need to make way for them. I’m really proud of the organizers — I think they did a really good job setting the tone.”

The principal noted how a hush fell over the giddy crowd when the 17-minute memorial began.

“Everybody realized what this was about,” she said.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...