Poly High School junior Tom Wood was scrolling social media last week, horrified by the shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, when something among the headlines drove home the pain for him: watching the interviews with parents who had just lost their children.

“It’s really easy to get numb to all those feelings after years and years of seeing mass shootings in the headlines,” he said. “But seeing that it was [almost] 20 kids dead, I was just kind of done with it. I felt this big flood of anger. When you feel helpless you want to do something, not just stand there and wait for a good headline.”

After texting with Wilson student Anika Stewart, a plan quickly came together, and the duo began organizing student walkouts for Friday at 10:30 a.m. at Poly and Wilson High School. Those plans have spread to several other district high schools, as Wood and Stewart have been joined by Wilson students Dayne Rash Arguello and Aaliyah Rincon in spreading the word via Instagram and other online platforms.

To the surprise of the student organizers, their school administrations got on board with the idea pretty quickly. Wilson principal Kimberly Holland was receptive to Stewart’s pitch.

Left to right: Tom Wood, 17, Anika Stewart, 16, Aaliyah Rincon, 17 and Dayne Rash Arguello, 17, stand under the arches at Wilson High School on Wednesday, June 1, 2022. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

“I told her that we were planning a walkout and that there were a lot of schools involved, and that we’d like to have the administration on board,” said Stewart. “Her response was that it was depressing that we have to do this again, but she was all for it. All of the schools that I’ve heard from so far, they’ve been really supportive.”

LBUSD Superintendent Jill Baker echoed that message saying via email, “We respect and support the right of our students to advocate for causes that are important to them. We’re working with students at various schools to plan opportunities for on-campus expression.”

Baker also issued statements recently after the Buffalo shooting and after the Uvalde shooting, saying the events “have us all shaken.”

This is not the first protest that Stewart has helped plan. She and Rash Arguello organized Wilson’s march for abortion rights last month, an event Stewart says they were hoping would draw a dozen students.

“All of a sudden there were 200 other kids and we were like, ‘What the hell just happened?’” she said.

Long Beach high school students rally in support of abortion rights in East Long Beach on Tuesday, May 17. Photo by Laura Anaya-Morga.

Even while expressing their frustration at new threats to abortion access, Stewart said she was surprised by how enjoyable the protest was, chanting and marching with her fellow students. She said, after that, student groups from all over Southern California began reaching out and asking her how they organized the event. The main answer was by simply trying, and by posting on their longbeachstudentsforchange Instagram account. They’re using the same platform to organize Friday’s walkout.

Their aim is to help call attention to students’ demands for gun control reform. Just like with the abortion rights protest, the point is more about making their voices heard than about expecting to solve a complex national problem with one action.

“We’ve had people say it’s not going to do anything, but not doing anything isn’t going to do anything either,” said Wood.

“I think it’s good to cope in a group,” said Stewart. “Even if it doesn’t change anything, everyone feeling like they’re part of something and supported matters too. These are issues that almost all of us are thinking about. Two months ago there were firecrackers set off at school and everyone thought it was a school shooting. That scared a lot of kids.

“There was also a student who was making threats who was expelled this year after students called the school. We have personal connections to these national stories. It’s nothing compared to kids who’ve been in school shootings. All we want is something to change so that we know we won’t be next.”

Wilson High students lead rally for abortion rights in Long Beach