Students at Meridian High School chatted Wednesday morning with state Sen. Doug Ericksen in a wide-ranging classroom-style discussion of gun violence, gun control and school safety.
Ericksen asked to talk with students at the school because of renewed attention on those issues in the wake of October’s mass shooting at a Las Vegas concert that killed 58 people and the Feb. 14 slayings of 17 students and staff at a high school in Parkland, Florida.
"I feel like we shouldn't be focused on just one solution," said student Rylee Marshall. "A problem as big as this, it doesn't have just one solution."
Ericksen, a Ferndale Republican and a graduate of Sehome High in Bellingham, said he wanted simply to hear from students. He said he made the same offer to administrators at other Whatcom County schools, and he's hoping he'll be invited to meet with students on those campuses.
"A lot of things get said about guns and about school safety," Ericksen told the students as the discussion started. "I just wanted to see if you feel safe here."
Students shared their concerns about how difficult it is to keep a large campus secure — even when the front door is locked and visitors must sign in.
Other topics included mental health and outreach to students, bullying, tougher background checks for gun buyers, access to firearms, arming teachers and having a police officer — often called a "resource officer" — on campus.
"There's students here that I know for a fact aren't getting the help that they need," said student Skylar Ruiz.
There was general agreement among the students when Ericksen asked if they believed a mental health counselor in school could have a positive effect.
Several students said that the mental anguish that the Florida school shooter apparently suffered forced them to reconsider how they treat other students, especially those who seem isolated or without friends.
"We have to become more aware," Ruiz said.
About 20 students attended the session, with about half of them asking to be included and about half of them recommended by teachers, Principal Derek Forbes said.
Some 510 students attend grades 9-12 at the high school, which is part of a district that serves the rural area north of Bellingham, east of Ferndale and south of Lynden.
A Whatcom County Sheriff's Office substation is adjacent the campus, which is otherwise surrounded by farmland and homes.
Several of the students said their peers sometimes bring firearms to school, locking them in their cars during school hours, because they go hunting after class.
"Around here, most kids in school have used a gun, whereas at a city school I would think ... a whole lot of them haven't physically used a gun," said student Kobe Koivisto.
That didn't bother Ruiz.
"I don't feel afraid that these people have guns in their trucks," she said.
When Ericksen steered the discussion toward gun control, including age limits on firearm sales being considered in the state Legislature, student Eli Rorhbach voiced a strong opinion.
"If people are considered responsible enough to drive a car at 16, I don't see why they have to be 18 to buy a gun," he said.
Washington state recently outlawed "bump stock" devices, which make a semiautomatic rifle fire rapidly, like an automatic gun.
Ericksen voted no on the original Senate Bill 5992 and voted yes on final passage as amended by the House. The House added new provisions to the legislation including a $150 buy-back program. No votes were taken on banning any type of weapon or raising the age for purchasing certain types of firearms.
Emma Forbes, the principal's daughter, disagreed with any plans to arm teachers.
"I think that there are also other ways that we can use to break down the problem on an individual level," she said, "so it doesn't come to the point where we have to arm teachers."
Student Naveah Whitemon said that arming teachers puts too much responsibility on people whose job is teaching.
"A lot of them probably wouldn't want that added stress and responsibility on their shoulders," Whitemon said. "It's kind of confusing that where are we getting all this money to arm and train our teachers, but then we don't have it for supplies that we need for everyday schoolwork."
Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty