By Raiza Giorgi
On the one-month anniversary of the mass shooting of high school students on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Fla., more than 200 students at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School took part in a national walk-out in their memory.
Students Kiara Costarelli, Jordan Whitney, Bella Manfreda, Sofia Caciola and Olivia Horvath created and led the local walk-out in collaboration with the SYVUHS administration.
“We deserve to feel safe at school. Now is the time to start holding our officials accountable and do research to form our own opinions. We are scared and angry, but we aren’t powerless,” said Sofia, a senior who spoke during the peaceful protest on March 14.
“I think everyone can agree that schools should be a safe space, but how to go about that … there’s a lot of different opinions and ideas, from gun control to mental health. It’s sad that the issues have become so politicized, but hopefully there will be a solution. I believe that is what our students are trying to accomplish,” said Principal Mark Swanitz.
During the walk-out, Bella read the names of the 17 people who died in the shooting and a brief biography of each one.
Meanwhile, a group of students who decided not to participate in the walk-out stayed in the Old Gym during the 17-minute demonstration.
“I believe we should have more gun safety, but this issue is also about mental health and bullying. We should be talking about that first,” said Pachomio Lopez, 15, a sophomore at the high school.
Pachomio added that he came to SYHS from Bakersfield. He said SYHS for the most part is mellow, and he doesn’t think there is as much bullying as in Bakersfield.
“I feel really awful for what happened to those students in Florida, and students should be safe,” he added.
Other students said they were taking the issues seriously but were using their right to refrain from attending the walk-out to make their own voices heard.
“I mean, has anything changed for our school? Are we going to have armed guards protecting us now or make it harder for visitors to come on campus? I think we could have done more to honor the students and teacher who died by going out of our way to have a conversation with kids who are alone,” said Alexandria Donahue, a junior who did not participate in the walk-out.
Swanitz, who also attended SYHS, recalled his high school days when students had rifles in their trucks on gun racks.
“No one was afraid of a school shooting then, because they were typically the ranch and farm kids that would go hunting before school or trap-shooting right after. Our area is a different as our kids are, growing up in a rural setting where this is still the norm,” he said.
What has changed since his days of walking the halls, he said, has been the invention of the Internet, social media, video games, and television shows and movies that glorify violence.
“Bullying, unfortunately, has always been around, but before social media it was mostly one-on-one and in person, where people could resolve it face to face and then move on, but with social media it’s just an open forum where people can hide behind their screens and say whatever, and it becomes a huge social stigma,” Swanitz said.
He noted the fight between two girls on campus last year that became extremely public when it was posted on social media.
“There was evidence of wrongdoing on both sides, but the resolution of it actually made us look deeper into our culture here on campus and what we can do to prevent these situations. We aren’t doing the standard detentions or suspension punishments. It’s about restorative justice now, where we repair the relationships and use proactive discipline,” Swanitz said.
When rumors arise, the school is mediating to resolve situations before they escalate, he added.
The administration has created a Student Senate this year to give the student body a platform to express their ideas, help unite them with the school’s administration, and work toward a safer and more welcoming campus.
“We have ambassadors between the seniors and the freshman, where they take a group of incoming kids and teach them the ropes. They do social gatherings like having lunch together a few times a quarter, or tutoring.
A Parent Ambassador Group was also set up last fall to provide a direct exchange of ideas and information between the administration and students’ parents.
“We also implemented a freshman technology class of what appropriate online behavior is, and having them understand what they put on the internet lasts, and what they say can really damage someone whether in person or online,” he said.
The high school practices for emergencies twice a year, Swanitz added, and the school can be locked down in 45 seconds if necessary.
“We work with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department and follow the protcols on evacuations and/or active-shooter incidents. It’s sad we have these situations at all, but it’s better to be prepared,” the principal said.