Education

Paso High students say they 'didn't have a choice,' were blocked from holding walkout

Paso Robles High School students on Thursday said they were "upset" and "disappointed" after administrators changed their schedule and organized an assembly to prevent them from holding a walkout against gun violence.

Hundreds of students around San Luis Obispo County gathered on their campuses Wednesday to protest gun violence in solidarity with high schools around the country.

National Walkout Day was organized after a gunman killed 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14.

Some Paso Robles students said they intended to walk out of their classes from 10 to 10:17 a.m. alongside teens at other schools, including San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay high schools. The 17 minutes were meant to symbolize the 17 people killed in Florida.

Atascadero High School students also planned a walkout, but a school shooting threat forced district officials to lock down the campus and cancel the event.

Siblings Leah and Trevor Pollock, 18-year-old seniors and members of the Progressive Club, said students initially planned to walk out early during their third-period classes.

But Paso Robles administrators changed the day's schedule to hold a nutrition break later in the morning, which made it impossible for students to walk out at the same time as teens at other schools.

"It made it so we didn't really have a choice to walk out or not," Leah Pollock said.

Instead, students from the Progressive Club and other organizations set up booths on the campus quad during the 17-minute break. Pollock said administrators didn't want students to express political views during their demonstration.

"This wasn't supposed to be a collaboration with the administration," Pollock said. "It was supposed to be a student-run protest."

Martha Clayton, a spokeswoman for the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District, said an assembly was also held prior to the break to "share a message with students about inclusion and kindness."

The Tribune was not given permission to cover Paso Robles students' demonstration. Lucia Mar Unified School District also barred members of the media from covering student walkout events.

"The time allotted during the nutrition period was completely student-led and was an opportunity for student voices to be heard, regardless of their views," Clayton wrote in an email.

Principal Eric Martinez said many students "participated by expressing their viewpoints and engaged in positive peer-to-peer dialogue."

"Students provided multiple viewpoints in a civil and peaceful manner," he wrote in a statement. "Additionally, some students continued with their day as normal during the extended nutrition time."

But multiple students said they were frustrated by the administration's involvement, as the point of the walkout was leaving class at a specific time to express their views on gun violence.

Senior Isiah Espinoza, a 17-year-old defensive end on the school's football team, said it was "upsetting" that school administrators controlled the circumstances around the demonstration.

"When you're not leaving class, it just loses a little bit of its meaning," he said.

Trevor Pollock agreed, saying administrators' involvement "discouraged" students.

"It's not set up by us," he said. "It's not what we wanted to do."

Junior Elise Scheiffele, 17, editorial and opinion editor for the school's Crimson newsmagazine, said in a Facebook message that the extended break made the event seem more "school-sanctioned" and less significant.

"The most important point to me was civil disobedience," Scheiffele said. "The whole idea of a walkout is to stir things up, and, frankly, we didn't get that. I'm proud of our Progressive Club, however, for working every way they could to get something for us to do."

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseymholden
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