Detroit student helps lead national gun violence protests

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
Alondra Alvarez, a senior at Western International High School and a member of the Women's March Youth Empower group, said she always had thought of her school as a safe place in Detroit but after the Florida school shooting, that's beginning to change.

In March and April, students from around the country will lead nationwide walkouts to protest gun violence.

Among them will be a Detroit high school student. 

Alondra Alvarez, a senior at Western International High School and a member of the Women's March Youth Empower group, said she always had thought of her school as a safe place in Detroit but after the Florida school shooting, that's beginning to change. 

"I don't want to say there could never be a shooting at Western because there probably could ... but we need to prevent that from happening," she said. 

The Feb. 14 shooting that left 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, sparked calls for walkouts, sit-ins and other action on school campuses across the U.S.

Alvarez, 18, has been active in education and human rights in southwest Detroit, where she grew up near Military and Army. Through the Women's March Youth group, she was named one of the 13 students nationally to spearhead protests against gun violence, according to a statement from the organization. 

She will lead students at Western International and, in doing so, join others across the country in simultaneous walkouts on March 14 and April 20. The March 14 walkout commemorates the one-month anniversary of the Florida shooting and urges teachers and students to participate at 10 a.m. and walk out of their school for 17 minutes — one for every person killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The April 20 walkout commemorates the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High shooting, where 13 people were murdered in Colorado, and will last for the entire school day. Organizers said there are 1,674 walkouts planned nationally, including more than 60 in Michigan as of Wednesday. 

“This is a day for students to have a voice and be represented. This will further amplify students’ commitment to action until Congress enacts legislative change," Women's March said in a statement. 

She also plans to talk to school superintendents and school board members to convince them students should be given the chance to participate in the walkouts without fear of being punished. 

"I feel like students shouldn’t be punished but encouraged to stand up for the city," she said.

Alvarez spoke with The Detroit News recently about safety in Detroit schools and the message students hope to impart in the walkouts.

How did you get involved in the walkout?

"When I heard there was going to be a nationwide school walkout, I immediately wanted to get Detroit involved since we’ve had a history with gun violence and thought it was a good moment to stand in solidarity. We have to understand how gun violence affects a city but also (how it) affects a student. Seventeen ... lives were lost due to gun violence and so many other lives have been lost due to gun violence in Detroit, so it’s time to bring awareness to the issue."

Do you feel like there’s a gun problem in Detroit?

"I feel gun violence has always been around in Detroit. Especially when growing up you hear all these stories of different shootings ... but now, I feel like now it’s so common to hear about shootings in schools. That breaks my heart because schools are supposed to be a safe place. Knowing any moment that gun violence can occur — that makes me really scared."

How do you feel Detroit is different?

"Most of us, we’ve been exposed … growing up. There have always been gunshots at night, so you’re more aware of your surroundings. I know that I should watch my back and if I feel unsafe, I should just leave. We’re street smart and it’s sad that you have to be that way but it helps you, and that’s one thing Detroit’s ahead of is that we’ve always been exposed and it’s expected. It forces us to be more woke and aware of our surroundings."

Do you feel safe at Western International?

“At Western, I actually do. They do check us in the morning. We all go through metal detectors. At one point, I never understood why and never understood how safe it actually makes the school. I don’t want to say there could never be a shooting at Western because there probably could but that really lowers the chances.”

What can be done to improve school safety?

“I think other schools should be like Western and check the students (at entrances for weapons). It’s not just brown and black students that are causing harm to one another. I know there are some schools towards the suburbs of Detroit that don’t check the students upon arrival and you never know what anyone’s going to bring to school. We should check all students, not just all students in Detroit.

"... At our school, we’ve never practiced a drill. I understand we check the students but we need to prepare. Administration needs to take that into consideration."

How do you feel about teachers being armed?

"Teachers being armed doesn't seem like the best idea, in my opinion. Guns in school should not be allowed, period. School is supposed to be a safe space and knowing someone has a gun just takes away the safe feeling. We need to say no to guns and just have metal detectors."

What’s the message you're sendingwith the walkouts?

"...We need to bring awareness to the gun violence issue. There’s always shootings everywhere. It became the norm but when I learned more about it, it’s not the norm. We hope we can bring awareness and push Congress to do something with gun control to make sure we’re all safe in Detroit or Parkland."

What do you hope happens as a result and what locally can people do?

"I hope we can all come together as a community and understand how gun violence is making youth feel. And adults in the community who can vote for gun control can listen to us and make sure to vote on laws that involve gun control."

How does it feel to be one of 13 student leaders in this movement?

“It feels really great. Detroit wasn’t really represented. … Knowing I was able to get students in Detroit and Western involved and because it was me leading this movement, more felt they could get involved because I’m a Latina from southwest (Detroit)."

“I’ve been an activist since I was 12. The system isn’t really made for people of color, and growing up I’ve seen injustices, whether with my education or in general. So, that’s always been my motivation. Not only to fight for myself but to fight for everyone in my community and the LatinX community as well.”

What do you want to do after high school?

"My goal is to major in communication with a minor in public relations and start my own nonprofit. Through the nonprofit, I want to help students create their own projects that they want to see in the city and promote them on the media in a positive way.

"I want to show the media that you’re not seeing the real Detroit. There’s more than just the violence. There are great things happening."

The walkouts are planned for March 14 and April 20 at 10 a.m. around the country. Below are the locations of schools with advocates participating in Michigan, according to the Women's March Empower group.