New Mexico school plans different action over gun violence

March 13, 2018

FILE - In this Dec. 7, 2017, file photo, Aztec High School students and area residents gather for a candlelight vigil in Aztec, N.M., after a shooting at the high school. While students across the country plan walkouts to protest gun violence, teens at the New Mexico high school still reeling after two classmates were gunned down in December by an armed intruder have organized a "walk-up" to help unify a campus with varied ideas on school safety. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras, File)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — While students across the country plan walkouts to protest gun violence, teens at a New Mexico high school still reeling from a deadly shooting in December have organized a “walk-up” to help unify a rural campus with varied ideas on school safety.

Students at Aztec High School asked administrators if they could gather around the flag pole Wednesday to honor the 21 students killed in recent months in school shootings — 17 in Florida, two in Kentucky and two of their own.

They also will be kicking off a campaign centered on 21 pledges, which will try to engage students and bolster school safety in a rural community where some are pushing to arm willing teachers.

Principal Warman Hall said in an interview that Aztec is still recovering so student leaders wanted to avoid a contentious debate or demonstration as other students around New Mexico and the U.S. organize against violence, with some calling for new gun regulations.

Hall said the bulk of students at Aztec High don’t want the discussion to revolve around politics but positive actions to make their campus safer. That includes reaching out to students who are alone, making it a point to make new friends, talking with their families and even writing their congressional representatives.

The students want to feel empowered, but they did not want to feel like it was their only option to walk off campus, Hall said.

“It was the kids who asked for something that’s not political,” he said. “Our kids sit on both ends of the spectrum, and we have a diverse community when it comes to gun rights and gun control.”

Not far from the borders of Arizona and Colorado, Aztec relies on oil and natural gas drilling along with a tourism industry built on the high-desert landscape, its fishing opportunities and connections to Native American culture.

Citing Aztec’s small-town values, English teacher Cynthia Mortensen said the community has been more interested in identifying strategies to improve safety rather than being consumed by the gun debate.

“For the most part, we have a different climate here,” Mortensen said of the town.

A military veteran and former law enforcement officer, Mortensen is among those who support training teachers to carry a concealed weapon. The idea would include a background check and structured training through the sheriff’s department to certify teachers who are interested.

Supporters are circulating a petition to allow teachers to have concealed weapons, and they have held a few rallies.

Mortensen was locked in her classroom with her students during the Dec. 7 shooting. They were grabbing books, scissors, rulers and whatever they could find to use as a weapon against the gunman.

“I believe there needs to be mental health programs and prevention, and we have to do all the other things to address this, but we cannot leave teachers and classrooms unprotected,” she said.

Casey Jordan Marquez and Francisco “Paco” Fernandez were killed when 21-year-old William Atchison pretended to be a student and entered Aztec High. Authorities have said Atchison, who once attended the school, planned the attack but the victims weren’t specifically targeted.

Investigators said it’s likely more could have died if Fernandez had not walked into the bathroom where the gunman was preparing for the attack. Atchison shot Fernandez, then walked into the hallway and encountered Marquez. He immediately killed her.

Atchison killed himself after randomly firing in the hallway and a computer lab.

Authorities found a thumb drive on Atchison’s body that said, “Work sucks, school sucks, life sucks. I just want out of this (expletive).”

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