Vale High School students listen during an assembly last week during National School Walkout Day. Vale, Nyssa and Ontario high schools all participated in the event with presentations that promoted unity and awareness. (The Enterprise/John L. Braese).

VALE - Students at three high schools in Malheur County on Thursday took part in the National School Walkout in differing ways, paying their respects to 17 people killed in Florida last month not by walking out but in ceremony, speech and silence.

At Vale High School, students gathered in the gym to thank those in their life and to make an effort to reach out to others.

“This is the most important assembly of the year,” announced Sam McLaughlin, student body president.

The assembly started with students asking to step outside of their comfort zone. Moments after sitting down in the gymnasium, they were asked to move to sit with someone not typically a person in their peer group.

Seniors sat with freshmen.

Football players sat with a student who has never attended a game.

Cowgirls sat with auto club members.

The Vikings observed 17 seconds of silence in memory of the students and others killed in Parkland, Florida. Then 17 students and teachers stepped behind a partition to read letters.

The “I don’t want to lose you” letters were written by parents, friends, siblings and students. Read anonymously, the letters were many times interrupted by moments of crying or by the reader pausing to regain his or her composure.

The readers then returned to the assembly, all linked hand by hand. A standing ovation greeted them.

Students were then urged to reach out to 17 people they typically do not associate with and get to know them.

Underclassmen were urged by senior Morgan King to reach out and try new things.

“Don’t make the same mistakes I have done,” said King. “There are people here I should have gotten to know and things I should have tried.”

“When we heard of the nationwide walkout planned for today, we decided to go a different direction,” said Principal Mary Jo Sharp. “We wanted to be more proactive in coming together.”

Sharp and the student body officers took that plan one step further.

A banner now hangs in the foyer with signatures of Vale students. Those signing the banner pledge to reach out, to accept others around them, and to listen to those with concerns. 

At Nyssa High School, Principal Malcom McRae said 50 students left their classrooms to gather in the gym, the place designated by school administrators for the event

“The group observed a moment of silence and five students spoke, one reading the names of those killed in Florida,” McRae said. “A few in the group cried, but it was all very respectful and handled well by the students.”

McRae said the school wanted to provide students an opportunity to say their piece and provide a safe place for them to gather.

“This was not civil disobedience, but students showing respect,” he said. “The students participating were super.”

At Ontario High School, students and teachers packed the gym for an assembly to mark the national event.

Principal Jodi Elizondo urged them to watch out for each other and “if you see something, say something,” alluding to the need to report suspected threats.

The students sat quietly in the bleachers and listened as Elizondo, the lone speaker, told them to look out for each other.

Elizondo said the assembly was a way to recognize the Florida tragedy without disrupting learning.

“We wanted to set them up for success. Let them know we support them,” said Elizondo.

At the end of the assembly, students approached a volleyball net stretched across the gym floor, tying on a yellow streamer as a way to acknowledge the Florida shooting and as a symbol that the high school is a community where everyone must have each other’s back.

Ontario High School already faced a potential security threat two weeks ago when a 15-year-old student was identified as threatening fellow classmates. The school reacted quickly to defuse the situation and within a short time the student was pulled from class as officials and police investigated. The student was eventually suspended and charged with disorderly conduct.

The incident placed the theme of student isolation into sharp focus.

Elizondo said students today face different challenges fitting in then the past generations.

“We struggle to understand that they don’t feel they belong because they are isolated by social media,” said Elizondo.

Elizondo’s said overcoming that sense of isolation is a challenge for educators.

“We combat this continually because they (students) don’t feel that responsibility for each other,” said Elizondo.

Elizondo said one way to reverse the trend of isolation is by emphasizing school spirit and cooperation.

“We talk about community a lot. We always look for an opportunity to bring that up,” said Elizondo.

Elizondo said she felt the assembly went well. She said she hopes it proves to be effective.

“You can never tell but here is what I do know, it didn’t hurt anything,” said Elizondo.

Elizondo said since the assembly she received positive feedback from students.

“Students said they liked that type of activity and would like to see more of it in the future,” said Elizondo.

John L. Braese: [email protected], 541-473-3377.

Pat Caldwell: [email protected]; 541-473-3377.