Hundreds of students at a New Mexico high school where two classmates were gunned down by an armed intruder in December gathered around a flag pole Wednesday for a “walk-up” as a way to unify their rural campus while students elsewhere in the country joined walkouts against gun violence.
The student council at Aztec High School had asked administrators for time in their schedule so they could honor the 21 students who have been killed in school shootings in recent months — including their two classmates — and to talk about 21 pledges they can take to get involved in making their campus safer.
The message on one poster read: Walk up to the kid who sits alone and ask that him to be part of the group, walk up to teachers and thank them, and walk up to someone and just be nice.
Almost the entire student body showed up for the gathering at the campus in a rural community in northwest New Mexico near the Arizona and Colorado borders. One student held a banner that read “Time for Change,” while others had donned the school colors.
“We weren’t protesting for gun safety. We did this to commemorate our fallen family and made it a positive movement,” said Jesse Smith, a 17-year-old senior who was friends with Casey Jordan Marquez — one of the victims at the school.
Shock followed the Dec. 7 shooting that killed Marquez and classmate Francisco “Paco” Fernandez. Then school shootings in Kentucky and Florida prompted students at Aztec High to identify ways to make a positive change on their own campus.
“Change doesn’t happen with silence,” Smith said.
In Albuquerque, about 300 students at La Cueva High School held a 17-second moment of silence for the victims of last month’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Junior Ruth Clark said it was important for students to join the conversation and push policies to make school safe. She also told classmates that adults have a responsibility to keep school safe and pass measures to regulate some weapons.
Many students in Santa Fe also walked out in memory of the Florida victims and to push for stricter gun laws.
In Las Cruces, hundreds of students walked out. Some held signs reading “#Enough” and “#NoMore.” Others had signs in support of the Second Amendment.
Aztec High School Principal Warman Hall said his students wanted to feel empowered but didn’t want a contentious political debate or demonstration.
“Our kids sit on both ends of the spectrum, and we have a diverse community when it comes to gun rights and gun control,” Hall said.
Family life in Aztec often includes hunting and shooting sports. The rural community’s response has been different from other parts of the nation. Some Aztec residents have called for willing teachers to be trained and allowed to carry concealed weapons.
Others are fearful. Some students have opted to be homeschooled, and teachers say staff and students are still dealing with waves of trauma and stress from the December shooting.
Community members used #AztecStrong on social media as students kicked off the pledge campaign to change their school and build a support network.
“We were already a family and since Dec. 7 we’ve never been more close as a school,” Smith said.
Smith was walking to class on the first floor when the shots rang out that December day. He didn’t realized what was happening until he reached his classroom and the school went into lockdown.
On the floor above, the 21-year-old gunman ambushed Fernandez in a bathroom and then encountered Marquez in the hallway. Both students were shot multiple times before the gunman walked the hall, firing randomly, and then killed himself.
Smith remembers hugging Marquez two days earlier when he ran into her in the guidance counselor’s office. “Crazy to think that was the last time I would talk to her,” he said.
Associated Press writer Russell Contreras contributed from Albuquerque, N.M.