Students plan March for our Lives

Maui youth whose cousin hid from gunman among organizers for march, concert on March 24

King Kekaulike High freshman Rachel Zisk talks to fellow high school students Tuesday at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center about a planned march and concert aimed at ending gun violence. The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

KAHULUI — King Kekaulike High School freshman Rachel Zisk felt a close connection to the victims of last month’s Parkland, Fla., school shooting.

“I was in school and my mom texted me saying your cousins are in a school shooting,” Rachel recalled Tuesday. “I was just wondering if my cousins were OK, and I was just trying to hope that everything would be OK.”

Her cousin, Leah Ronkin, a sophomore at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, hid in a closet in the drama building and could hear the gunman shooting her classmates next door. Seventeen students lost their lives in the Feb. 14 shooting.

Nikolas Cruz , 19, has been charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder and is being held without bond.

SWAT teams escorted Leah and many others safely off campus.

Leah Ronkin (left) is shown with her mother, Tamara. Leah attends Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and hid from the gunman. The Ronkins have relatives on Maui.

“I was just shocked,” Rachel said. “It’s a shocking thing, but it happens so often that it’s like, ‘Oh it’s another school shooting,’ which I should never have to think.

“I was mostly angry at the thought that it would be possible for someone to get away with that . . . just to buy a gun and walk in and do that.”

The experience has led her and other high school students throughout Maui County to organize a march and concert on March 24 as part of a nationwide movement to end gun violence. The March for Our Lives will take place at the University of Hawaii Maui College’s Great Lawn, and the Concert for Our Lives will be held at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center.

The concert will feature artists Jack Johnson, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Willie K, Landon McNamara, Lily Meola and others. The march includes speeches by students and Women’s March founder Teresa Shook of Hana.

Rachel and about a dozen students from Baldwin High, Maui High, Seabury Hall, Maui Preparatory Academy, Maui Technology Academy, Haleakala Waldorf and Kihei Charter are helping to organize the event with the help of parents, teachers and community groups. Students from every middle and high school in the county are expected to participate in the event.

About a dozen students from public and private high schools on Maui, as well as parents, teachers and community groups, gather for a meeting Tuesday afternoon at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center to plan a march and concert that focuses on ending gun violence. The events are set for March 24. The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

“I feel like doing this march is the best kind of support right now for her,” Rachel said of her cousin. “It shows that not only do I care about her, but I care about everyone who went through something like that and to spread the ‘never again message.’ ”

Lily Katz, a senior at Baldwin and an organizer of the march, said she “jumped” at the opportunity to get involved after watching the shooting on the news. Katz also is leading her school’s “Walk Out,” a national demonstration in which public and private school students plan to walk out of classrooms today, in recognition of the Florida shooting.

“I don’t really remember anything else being this student-led, and I think it started with the Parkland students rising up,” she said. “It was just so inspiring to see what they can do. Everyone says, ‘Oh they’re kids, they can’t lead a political movement.’ I think this shows the country that students are capable of moving things and are knowledgeable. I think it’s part of this movement that makes it so meaningful.”

Katie McMillan, an adviser for the students, said she expects 3,000 to 5,000 people to attend the march and 5,500 for the concert. She said only 1,000 free student tickets are left.

“It’s way bigger than I could have imagined,” McMillan said. “I knew it was a topic people were rallying behind, but also to see the young people stepping out with this last shooting was special.”

While McMillan believes Maui is generally safe, she was shocked when many students and parents told her about police investigations stemming from social media posts, threatening messages scrawled on bathroom walls and other threats against local schools.

“Once we started reaching out for support from different people and businesses, people were beyond trying to help out,” she said. “It’s very clear to me that people recognize the opportunity we have here to encourage youth civic engagement.”

Rachel’s mother, Shoshana Zisk, said she takes her daughter to see her sister’s family, which includes Leah, in Florida every year. She said it is a nice, caring and upscale community where “everything that’s violent happens everywhere else.”

“We’ve been to their house a million times, and it felt like the safest place on the planet,” said Zisk. “The way the school is built is practically a prison. You’d never think something like that would happen.

“No place is safe.”

Her sister Tamara Ronkin recalled the shooting Tuesday in a phone interview from her Florida home and how she and Leah were reunited. Ronkin said her husband was able to contact Leah while she hid in the closet. After being escorted out of the school, Leah ran 2 miles east of the school and was reunited with her mother about a mile away from their house.

“I found her, and we had a big embrace and got her in the car,” Ronkin said.

The family then picked up younger daughter, Rebekah, from the middle school, which was under lockdown. Ronkin said she was relieved to have both of her children safe but felt sorrow after learning of the death toll.

“I started feeling horrible for the parents who didn’t get that reunion with their kids,” she said. “I read some news reports that they gathered all the parents at a nearby hotel, and everyone was reunited one by one. When it got to the remaining parents — all you could hear was screams.

“Thinking about that was just heartbreaking.”

Ronkin said two of Leah’s friends from marching band and color guard were killed with another close friend recovering from a gunshot wound to the leg. She said therapy dogs, counselors and other services have helped her daughter overcome the grief of the shooting.

“I think she’s doing a little better every day,” she said.

Ronkin said the worldwide support, including from her sister’s family on Maui, has been overwhelming and recalled the 3-mile-long, ti-leaf lei delivered to the school by Maui resident Ron Panzo and his Lei of Aloha group, late last month.

She added that she has become more involved in lobbying state and federal lawmakers to change gun laws and to reduce the number of dangerous weapons available.

Ronkin’s niece Rachel said that change does not have to mean “ban all guns” but believes something needs to be different. She hopes the march and concert lead to that change.

“I’ve always been appalled whenever I see gun violence and stuff coming across news and Facebook,” Rachel said. “When this happened, it happened to my own family and I came so close to losing my cousins.

“I feel like now I’ve been called, and what I want to do with my life is spread their message and demand change.”

For more information on the march and concert, visit marchforourlivesmaui.com.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.

March For Our Lives Maui

When: 3 to 4:30 p.m. March 24

Where: The Great Lawn at the University of Hawaii Maui College

Sponsor: UH-Maui College

Other: Event includes student presentations, sign waving and voter registration. Registration for march not required, but attendees are urged to sign-up to receive updates at event.marchforourlives.com/event/march-our-lives-events/9060/signup/?source=&akid=&zip=


Concert For Our Lives

When: 5:30 p.m., doors open at 4:30 p.m., March 24

Where: Maui Arts & Cultural Center

What: Features live music, student speakers, voter registration and information tables with participating elected representatives. Performers include Jack Johnson, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Willie K.

Tickets: $10; students free with Eventbrite ticket and student ID. For tickets, go to concert4maui.eventbrite.com. (MACC is not issuing tickets for this event.)


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