Miranda Briscoe Taylor-Cheek’s public stand on school safety didn’t start with a word. It began with silence.
Seventeen minutes of silence. One minute for every person killed just nine days prior in another mass school shooting.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, is 3,229 miles from Phoenix High School. Its student population of over 2,200 dwarfs that of Phoenix, which hovers around 700. Yet PHS senior Taylor-Cheek said when she walked into school on Feb. 15, she could see only the similarities between the students at her school ― chatting in front of lockers during passing period, sitting in the commons for lunch, listening to their teachers in class ― and those plunged into tragedy the day before.
The vigil she and her classmates held Feb. 23 is just one of many events organized by students locally in the wake of Parkland.
Horror and grief always follow a school shooting — as they did after Sandy Hook and Umpqua Community College — but this time, something was different. As their smartphones shrank the miles separating them from Parkland to nothing, local students saw something that galvanized them: Many of the Stoneman Douglas survivors were almost immediately vocal not only about their grief, but also their anger ― and their commitment to enact change.
For many of the students, educators and parents watching it unfold from the Rogue Valley, the all-too-familiar question of “What if it happened here?” is being replaced by a challenge issued by the friends and families of the fallen: “How can we make sure that it doesn’t?”
“I don’t want to sit around and wait for the next time and see who’s next,” Taylor-Cheek said. She and a few of her classmates are following the Parkland survivors’ lead by helping organize a “March For Our Lives” on March 24 in Medford.
A statement from South Medford students in charge of a March 2 walkout echoed that attitude.
“We will not fear for younger sisters and brothers in school,” the statement read. “We will not fear our teachers having to defend themselves against a student. We are done being afraid. If no one will save us, we will save ourselves.”
On Friday, St. Mary’s, South Medford and North Medford students joined forces for a walkout, armed with chants, signs and ideas for stricter gun laws. After exiting their classes at 9 a.m., students marched to U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley’s office. The organizers fielded questions from reporters and directed their own questions about what policy actions Merkley supports to his field representative.
A few dozen South Medford students held a walkout Feb. 21, holding hastily scrawled signs and shouting, “Keep us safe” in the direction of reporters and passing cars. Middle-schoolers demonstrated, too: 87 Hedrick Middle School students left their classrooms two days later for a supervised outdoor discussion about creating a respectful environment. That same morning, inspired by the Phoenix High students, Talent Middle School students held their own 17-minute silent vigil. Rogue River Junior/Senior High School’s walkout was bookended by discussions between students and teachers about the role of civil disobedience.
“This doesn’t just rest on one party, one house of power,” said Brian Josephson, a founder of Students For Action. “It is a failure on all levels of government to protect our children as they study in school. The adults, they had their turn. Now it’s our turn.”
Trying to pinpoint who should be responsible for preventing school shootings can be difficult. While federal and state governments set policy on gun ownership, in Oregon, school districts determine who can be armed on campus. They also shoulder responsibility for a host of other security factors, ranging from building design to crisis prevention and response.
All the Jackson County school district administrators reached by the Mail Tribune seem to agree on two things: that improving safety is an ongoing priority, and that responding to national events such as Parkland within their schools and communities demands walking a fine balance between situational grief and what a few called “knee-jerk” reactions.
“You can’t just take action at those times,” said Paul Young, superintendent of the Rogue River School District. “You have to take steady action.”
Young said that Rogue River’s aging facilities are a key focus in school safety improvements, as they weren't built with tight security in mind. Rather than a central entrance guarded by a vestibule, the junior-senior high school has several classrooms with exterior doors, something that's uncommon in new designs.
“It’s great for fresh air, great for sunlight, great for freedom,” Young said. “It’s not great for safety.”
Medford School District spokeswoman Natalie Hurd said that building security also depends on safe behaviors. Teachers are encouraged to keep windows and doors closed during all class times.
Other safety strategies involve engaging students. Five of the county’s nine school districts use the SafeOregon tip line, which allows students to anonymously report threatening behaviors or safety concerns. Oregon State Police manages the tipline, alerting the primary point of contact at the school where the threat originates. Medford is also considering using SafeOregon.
But for parents, the security measures in place don’t always feel like enough to still the fear that rises in the wake of school shootings. Kelly McEvilly, mother to a freshman son at South Medford and a daughter in elementary school, told the Medford School Board at its Feb. 26 meeting that more could be done.
She said at an Indiana school considered the “safest school in America,” for example, every teacher wears a panic button and the county sheriff has access to cameras installed across the school.
“I think more safety measures need to be taken, as if we are not the exception to these school shootings,” she said.
Medford schools have Emergency Response Buttons in hallways that alert law enforcement. As for security cameras, a short-lived program in 2013 connected Shady Cove school to the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, before then-Sheriff Corey Falls scrapped it in favor of increased deputy training.
Even so, McEvilly said that it breaks her heart that her son Jayden tells her there’s nothing more that can be done to protect students from shootings.
“How long do we wait for something to change?” she said. “I think it’s at a point where we have to be proactive together as parents and members of the community, coming together and talking about solutions. I just want so badly to prove him wrong.”
Students' demonstrations so far seem to indicate they're determined to prove more can be done. Meanwhile, teachers and principals are organizing forums and spaces for students to process their fears and find ways to channel them into action. More marches are in the works, and Josephson said Students For Action is using an “amalgamation of prior bills and new ideas” to construct an initiative petition for the November ballot.
Amid the anger, hope remains in the actions of students who plan to continue speaking out.
"They have a voice and power and they need to use it," Taylor-Cheek said. "Now is the time to use it."
— Reach reporter Kaylee Tornay at 541-776-4497 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.