Before noon Wednesday, the fire alarm went off at Hellgate High School and the building evacuated, though many students had already planned to leave.
Hundreds of students with signs that read things like “Enough is Enough,” and “Protect Kids Not Guns,” walked toward the Higgins Avenue bridge. People driving by honked their horns in support of the walkout.
Students had different reasons for marching: to protest Montana’s lenient gun laws, to bring attention to the lack of security at their high school, to stand in solidarity with the survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida that left 17 people dead.
“In my opinion it’s sad that it’s taken this long for people to get this upset about it,” said Henry Charman, a senior at Hellgate who helped to organize the walkout. He noticed other schools were planning walkouts on Twitter, and thought his school should join as well.
“It’s really cool and powerful to see how they’re using social media as a tool,” Charman said of the students in Parkland, Florida. “It’s become a really big thing and its unprecedented. I love to see my generation using its voice more.”
Dozens of Big Sky High School students also walked out of their classes, and a handful stayed out protesting until around 2 p.m.
After a stop on the bridge, Hellgate students continued marching through downtown, passing Sen. Steve Daines' office and the Missoula County Courthouse, with a final stop at Caras Park before they returned to school. MCPS Communications Director Hatton Littman said normal attendance procedures are followed when students leave class, so parents will be notified if their kids were absent.
Eliana Lambros, 16, said she left class to protest gun violence and easy access to weapons.
“People our age are being affected and we want to show that we have a voice and we have opinions on this,” she said.
Her classmate Matthew Knight, 16, said he’s protesting the “lack of any strong response from our government officials.”
“If they can’t take it into their own hands then we’re going to do it ourselves,” he said.
Hellgate principal Judson Miller said while the school cannot officially endorse the student protest, they can make it a safe space for students who decide to participate. He said he told staff to use this as a teachable moment, and he spoke to the school newspaper about the protest as well.
"This is a real opportunity for students to demonstrate responsibility," he said. "If I give you a lot of responsibility, you need to help peer monitor each other."
Miller also said there is an ongoing investigation about who pulled the fire alarm. He suspects it was related to the protest, and if a student is found responsible, he or she will be charged with a misdemeanor.
Some faculty and parents also joined the students, walking alongside them. Susan Snetsinger, whose child goes to school at Hellgate, came out to support “the kids taking leadership.”
“It’s heartbreaking that kids are having to take leadership on an issue like this,” she said. Snetsinger said she planned to attend the PTA meeting at Hellgate on Thursday night to ask about what the school is doing to protect its students.
Hellgate School Resource Officer Jim Johnson honked at the protesting students while driving over the bridge. He said school shootings are a tragic thing and something they need to be prepared for. Active shooter training and more drills can help students in that situation, he said.
Johnson also suggested tighter security measures — cameras, monitoring exits and training staff regularly. He said he doesn't like protests because they can be dangerous, but he understands why the students decided to walk out.
"They're exercising their right to free speech, and I think it makes people feel better if they can do this," Johnson said. "They feel like they need to do something, and in that way I think it's good, it kind of brings the school together."