KAILUA-KONA — In the wake of a shooting that killed 17 people at a Florida high school — and later threats to their own school — a handful of students at Konawaena High School looked to their own campus for an opportunity to ensure students feel safe in their classrooms.
“It was really scary,” said Jaelyn Libarios, 17, of recent threats to Hawaii Island schools, including Konawaena High School. “And I noticed a lot of kids were too scared to even come to school — even though it wasn’t even a direct threat — it was just scary, and people shouldn’t be scared to come to school and learn.”
Along with fellow students Tia Ubando, 18, and Malaea Tolentino-Selke, 17, Libarios said they made the decision to organize a pep rally, coinciding with the day students nationwide took to demonstrations advocating for action on gun violence and school safety.
“Because pep rallies really bring everybody together and it draws attention,” Libarios said. “So, we figured that we’d bring the attention to a positive thing and get their attention on this serious thing.”
At the rally, students had an opportunity to write a message of kindness or gratitude on a billboard. Within minutes, the board was filled with messages declaring, “we are the future,” “be a voice, not an echo” and “you matter.”
Senior Kaanoi Rivera-Kelekolio wrote “always remembered,” in a corner of the board, a declaration, he said, that the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, would never be forgotten.
“Don’t forget about it,” he said. He referenced other shootings like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, in which a man shot 20 children and six adult staff members.
“It’s kind of, like, forgotten after a while,” he said.
Student organizers also prepared “Random Acts of Kindness” to be distributed to students that challenged them to undertake a specific kind act for someone, such as opening the door for them or offering a compliment.
The activity was a hit with students, the organizers said, with some students giving out the Random Acts of Kindness to those outside their immediate circle of friends.
“That kinda sets a chain reaction, so people that they don’t even know start doing it for people that they don’t know, so that starts to spread the word,” said Ubando.
On Wednesday, students coast-to-coast left class at 10 a.m. local time for various protests, marches and demonstrations. They ranged from middle schoolers to college students.
Students at schools throughout Hawaii took part in the walkouts. Gov. David Ige joined kids at Pearl City High School, while Sen. Mazie K. Hirono joined thousands of students — including 22 from Kauai High School — at the U.S. Capitol for the National School Walkout Rally.
On the east side of the island, Teryn Tominaga and around 100 of her Waiakea Intermediate School peers waved signs along Puainako Street.
“It was really cool,” Teryn, 13, said. “At first, we went out and I didn’t see anybody. But then, people started streaming out from the buildings, and I was like, ‘Wow.’ It was just really cool how many people supported this. It felt like we were doing something bigger than we’ve ever done before.”
While students nationwide focused their collective voices on everything from campus safety to gun violence to policy changes, Konawaena High School students said their efforts were focused on making their school a safe, welcoming space.
As students, Ubando said, it’s important for them to take the initiative in advocating for school safety.
“It matters because it really starts with us,” she said. “You can say anything you want, you can do anything, but when you start to act on what you say you’re going to do is when you start making a difference.”
Some students at the rally advocated for larger policy changes, particularly in regard to firearms.
“People always use like, ‘Oh it’s the person doing the killing, not the gun,’ but it can literally be anyone,” said junior Haley Roback. “It doesn’t have to be your typical crazy person with all these problems, it can be an everyday person. It’s the gun that’s the problem, because they have access to it.”
Roback called for stricter control on firearms, saying she believes semi-automatic and automatic weapons should not be available to the public and that officials should take steps similar to those in other countries that have stricter laws regarding gun possession.
She also noted the role students have in the national conversation about school safety, saying there’s a lot of change happening now because of students’ response to the shooting in Florida.
“They’re speaking out and they’re getting a hold of the right political leaders so that their voices can actually be heard,” Roback said. “So, I feel like movements like this should continue until change is actually in place.”
The walkouts Wednesday were among several protests planned for coming weeks. The March for Our Lives rally for school safety is expected to draw hundreds of thousands to the nation’s capital on March 24, its organizers say.
Another round of school walkouts is planned for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado. Local events are also planned for both dates.
WHT intern reporter Gita Howard and Tribune-Herald reporter Kirsten Johnson contributed to this report.