West Mesa High School has been at the center of most of Cynthia Martinez’s family’s lives.
Martinez, 44, graduated from the school in 1997. All five of her children have attended West Mesa at one time or another, and three have graduated from there.
But as reports of guns being found on campus, violence in the area, and shelters in place have all mounted, Martinez says she’s so worried about the safety of their youngest child, Sophia, she plans to send her to a different school next year.
“It’s pretty scary,” Martinez said about sending her daughter to West Mesa every day. “It puts us at a crossroads — are we willing to drive across town to get to what we hope is a safer school? Or do we risk our child’s life every day?”
“This year has been so … terrifying,” she added. “We’re tired of it. We’re scared for our daughter.”
On Saturday, more than 100 people — among them students, teachers, parents, school board members and Martinez’s family — turned out to march against guns in schools.
To the beat of marching drums, they patrolled the school grounds, shaking cow bells, holding signs reading such things as “graduations not funerals,” and chanting “Two, four, six, eight — stop the violence, stop the hate!”
“Just a couple of weekends ago, I lost my cousin to gun violence,” Martinez’s daughter, Sophia Herrera, told the Journal. “So wanting change in this community is just all I want.”
So far this school year, at least three guns have been seized at West Mesa — the most of any Albuquerque Public Schools campus.
Across the metro area, 17 guns in total have been reported or confiscated this year — though it’s not entirely clear where all the students who brought guns to school got them from, or how much authorities are doing to trace their origins.
“I think a lot of people are tired of having guns on our campus. It’s scary to come to work sometimes,” Principal Michele Torres said.
She did highlight more support from the district in terms of security, which has included moving an additional school resource officer to the school, as well as cooperation with Albuquerque police in improving surveillance systems in and around the school.
In February 2022, West Mesa student Andrew Burson was shot and killed just off campus by another teenager Burson accused of stealing his gun — a day Torres said she’ll never forget, and still has trouble talking about.
It’s taken over a year for his father, Al Burson, to be able to talk about what happened to his son. But on Saturday, he said he felt he needed to, to help raise awareness for other parents, and spoke to marchers about what he and his family endured that day.
“I just don’t want anybody else to go through that,” he told the Journal.
Preventing students from bringing them isn’t as simple as flipping a switch, though, 18-year-old West Mesa student Lanae McConnell pointed out.
“This area is not safe. It is not,” she said. “Students … some of them have ( a gun) for protection.”
Instead of just being “criminalized,” McConnell said, students in such situations should get more help from the school from counselors, administrators or even just crossing guards, who could help make the walk to school that much safer.
Teacher Theresa Illgen has often made the point that West Mesa students need more counselor support. But at the end of the day, guns should not be in schools, she said, and that was the point of Saturday’s march.
“The message couldn’t have been more clear,” Illgen said. “We don’t want guns on our school campus.”