The voice of fifth grader Nate Dimple Alvarez offered testimony Saturday about the fears that have gripped students in the wake of deadly school shootings nationwide.
Alvarez, a student at Joe Stefani Elementary School, told a crowd of supporters at Merced's Court House Square Park about his wish to feel safe at school.
"It shouldn't have to be that every day we are afraid to be shot," Alvarez explained. "We should feel safe at school, when we're walking, or on the bus to school."
Alvarez was joined Saturday morning by students and more than 150 people who expressed frustration, anger and resolve at a rally in solidarity with "March for Our Lives" -- a national movement against gun violence that captivated cities nationwide.
The national day of protest was sparked by the overwhelming response to the mass school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14. Most of the 17 people killed were students.
In the weeks following the shooting, several student survivors spoke out against gun violence and advocated for gun control measures, like a proposed ban on assault-style weapons and stricter requirements for owning firearms.
The words of those students captivated Merced's youth.
"Emma Gonzalez, she really has inspired me to step up because it is happening in all our local communities," said 17-year-old Golden Valley High School senior Camilla Luker, mentioning one of the several outspoken Parkland students who've become the face of a national student-led resistance against gun violence.
"There have been gun threats to our different high schools in Merced, and especially in Le Grand," Luker told the Sun-Star.
Merced and Madera counties have seen at least six people arrested for making criminal threats against schools since the Parkland shootings.
Two students were arrested within the span of three days this month for making threats against schools in Chowchilla, police said.
In Le Grand, a 13-year-old boy was arrested on March 2 for making threats against Le Grand Elementary School, investigators said. Plus, school threats in Winton, Gustine and at Merced College led to arrests.
There's been a spike in non-credible reports of threats against high schools, county educators said. On March 7, three separate alleged threats later deemed not credible led to some students opting not to attend class.
As a local youth organizer, 20-year-old Elizabeth Arellano said high school students in the Merced area have told her the increased frequency of school shootings in the last two years has put them on edge. "Some of them, they're just scared," said Arellano, who marched with students on Saturday.
While students have told Arellano they are hesitant to speak up about their thoughts on the Parkland shooting and national discussion about gun violence, Saturday's march and rally provided them an outlet and support system behind them, she said.
Saturday's event started with marchers gathering at the Boys and Girls Club of Merced, on the corner of 15th and M streets, with signs against gun violence and the National Rifle Association, advocating for gun control measures.
Some elected officials and those running for elected office also were present, although no campaign materials were allowed, according to organizer Necola Adams.
The crowd marched along the sidewalk on M Street north to Court House Square Park, where they held a rally in front of the World War II memorial.
After Alvarez kicked off the rally, a moment of silence was held, as the names of school shootings since the infamous 1999 Columbine High shooting were read, along with the number of how many people were shot or killed.
Performances by a local school choir and skit group emphasized the importance of students speaking out.
Luker spoke on her own experience growing up in a family where guns were kept in multiple places in the home.
"Although the Second Amendment gives us the right to keep and bear arms, which is not something I totally disagree with, this right should not entitle people to weapons that can shoot 10 (rounds) per second," Luker said.
Luker and other students, speaking in a question-answer discussion during the rally, also spoke in favor of background checks for gun purchases, and more mental health services in the schools and community.