Early last month, students across the nation participated in a national school walkout, as part of a growing movement urging lawmakers to tighten gun control legislation. The walkout lasted for 17 minutes; one minute to honor each of the 17 victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February.
Participation in the walkout sparked controversy and a nationwide debate surrounding high school students’ First Amendment rights, after several students were suspended or threatened with suspension after participating in the demonstration. But in a February Facebook post, Westminster College reassured students they would not be penalized for participation in such events.
“Westminster College believes that an important part of an education is being able to critically evaluate facts, draw conclusions, and advocate for and lead necessary change,” the post said. “As such, we are proud to join colleges and universities who have pledged not to penalize applicants nor admitted students who are disciplined by their schools when they engage in peaceful protest while standing up for their beliefs.”
After the March for Our Lives event on March 24 — a national, student-led protest against gun violence — Ron Headings, the associate vice president of enrollment management at Westminster, reiterated that message.
“Continue to use your voices; to speak out for what you think is right and to work actively for change and do not back down. Keep pushing and learning and understanding and your voices will be heard,” Headings said during the college’s Admitted Student Day celebration that same day. “I just want to encourage all those students to keep at it.”
Britnie Powell, a sixth grade science teacher at the Salt Lake Center for Science Education, said she’s grateful that colleges and universities are showing their support for high school students during this politically charged time.
“Students shouldn’t be penalized for peaceful protesting,” she said. “That’s our responsibility as American citizens: To peaceably assemble, to hold our government officials accountable and to let the voices of the people be heard.”
The March for Our Lives protest in Salt Lake City brought an estimated 8,000 students, who flooded the streets downtown and at the Utah State Capitol, chanting “no more” and “never again.”
Counter-protesters from the Utah Gun Exchange, who are in favor of preserving the Second Amendment, marched on the same day. The counter-protest group proudly displayed their rifles and pistols — a right protected by Utah’s open-carry state law.
Tyler Allan, one of the participants of the counter-protest, said he doesn’t think enough people are educated about current gun laws and said there is too much fear surrounding the movement.
“Gun laws are already heavily regulated; they’re already heavily enforced, and the fact is that no matter how heavily you try and regulate them, there are always people with guns who are out there to try and kill and destroy,” Allan said. “Without good people who are trained and legal to be able to own firearms, then the amount of shootings and deaths are just going to skyrocket.”
Organizers of the national March For Our Lives said they don’t want to take away all guns, according to their website. Instead, they want to:
- Fund research on gun violence/gun prevention and intervention programs
- Eliminate restrictions on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that prevent the organization from keeping digital records of gun sales
- Require universal background checks in order to purchase a firearm
- Ban high capacity magazines that hold 10 or more rounds
- Limit high-powered weapons to military use only
These changes, the group’s website contends, “will effectively address the gun violence issues that are rampant in our country.”
Despite disagreements with the March For Our Lives movement’s core message, Allan said he thinks colleges and universities are doing the right thing by protecting students’ admission statuses, regardless of the possible protest-related suspensions from high schools. He reiterated that everyone has a right to protest.
Gala Marie Ostlund, a Salt Lake City resident and attendee of the March For Our Lives protest, said seeing the power and determination of the younger generation to take a stance against government inaction greatly overshadowed any negative feelings she had about the counter-protest.
“It really lifted me up to know that we have such strong and passionate, dedicated individuals that are going to be coming of age to vote and that are really taking a stand for what they believe in,” Ostlund said. “We are begging our representatives to do something about this and if they don’t, we’re going to take the initiative and we are going to get our butts to the polls and we’re going to get them out of office.”