Students at thousands of schools across the country began walking out of class at 10 a.m. Wednesday to protest gun violence and to mark one month since a mass shooting left 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
The nationally organized walkouts, most of which were expected to last 17 minutes in symbolic tribute to the Florida victims, are unprecedented in recent American history. Supporters say the protests represent a realization of power and influence by young people raised on social media who have come of age in an era of never-ending wars, highly publicized mass shootings and virulent national politics.
In the Washington region, hundreds of high school students from local districts gathered at the White House carrying signs protesting gun violence and those who oppose gun-control measures. Just before 10 a.m. the crowd fell silent and sat with fists and signs held high. They sat in silence for 17 minutes on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House and planned to march later to the Capitol, where they hope to meet with lawmakers.
At the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, still recovering from a violent white supremacist rally last summer, about 2,000 students gathered on the Lawn, many wiping away tears as the names of the 17 Florida students were read aloud. The university’s chapel bells tolled 17 times as students bowed their heads in silence.
At Columbine High School in Colorado, where shooters killed 12 students and one teacher in 1999, students arriving early for school said they planned to take part in a demonstration at 10 a.m. local time.
Myriah Murren, 14, told her mother “I love you” as she was dropped off before sunrise at Columbine on Wednesday morning. The freshman said she planned to walk out of class later in the morning to send a message to students who survived the shooting in Florida that she and her classmates “care for them.”
“A lot of people will join in,” she said, adding that going to a school that was the site of one of the earliest mass school shootings makes her and her classmates more aware of the issue.
Walkout organizers say that close to 3,000 schools have indicated they will take part and that many more are planning events and memorials independently. On the social media pages for the Women’s March Youth Empower, the group helping to coordinate Wednesday’s walkouts, more than 150,000 students have indicated interest in taking part, said organizer Fatima Younis, a student at Frederick Community College in Maryland. The walkout, she said, is a message that political leaders need to hear.
“We want our Congress to know that some of us will be old enough to vote in the midterm elections, and the rest of us are going to be able to vote in 2020 or 2022, and they’re going to lose their job if they don’t do what we want to keep us safe,” Younis said. She said lawmakers need to increase the age for people to purchase weapons, ban assault-style weapons and demilitarize police forces.
The response by students to the school shooting in Florida is different, Younis said, because “people thought we were too young to do anything, but students have just had enough. This shooting resonates with people because it could happen to any of us.”
All but three of those who were killed at Stoneman were teenagers. For many of their peers, the list of their names and ages is a depressing reminder of the years stolen from them.
Alyssa Alhadeff, 14. Scott Beigel, 35. Martin Duque, 14. Nicholas Dworet, 17. Aaron Feis, 37. Jaime Guttenberg, 14. Chris Hixon, 49. Luke Hoyer, 15. Cara Loughran, 14. Gina Montalto, 14. Joaquin Oliver, 17. Alaina Petty, 14. Meadow Pollack, 18. Helena Ramsay, 17. Alex Schachter, 14. Carmen Schentrup, 16. Peter Wang, 15.
President Trump and lawmakers are noting the role that students are playing in shaping the discussion on guns. The White House announced Sunday it is establishing a Federal Commission on School Safety to be headed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. When Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) signed a gun bill Friday that raises the minimum age to purchase a firearm to 21, he said, “To the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, you made your voices heard. You didn’t let up and you fought until there was change.”
But students are paying close attention to lawmakers’ actions and insisting that changes are not cosmetic, but go to the root of gun violence.
Amanya Paige, 16, a junior at Parkdale High School in Prince George’s County and the student member of the county board of education, said many schools in her district are participating in on-campus walkouts “to pay our respects and to show that the student voice matters and we won’t stand for the lack of gun control when it comes to school safety. This is where we spend the majority of our time and pray that we are safe every day.”
In the days leading up to Wednesday’s expected walkouts, most school districts seem to be working with students to accommodate organized protests but also contain them to school grounds so that students don’t leave campus. At schools where students leave campus without approval, they can face punishment, including detention.
While the bulk of walkouts are taking place in high schools and middle schools, university students are also participating.
At the University of Virginia, where Sarah Kenny is student council president, the threat of violence has felt raw since August clashes between white supremacists and counterprotesters turned deadly in Charlottesville. Many students have been worried about armed extremists since then, she said. “In the past year, I felt a very dramatic shift in the sense of fear,” she said.
Kenny is expecting more than 1,000 students and faculty members to walk out of classes Wednesday.
“I haven’t seen a protest or demonstration like this in my time at U-Va.,” Kenny said. “I’m anticipating it might be the biggest in decades.”
In front of the school’s iconic Rotunda, the chapel bell will ring 17 times in memory of those who were killed in Florida.
Lauren Osborne plans to be a teacher after she graduates from Wayne State College in a few years. It’s sad, she said, that she also has to plan what she would do if a shooter entered her classroom.
In this rural and conservative part of Nebraska, she said, gun control is controversial. “Plenty of ranchers I know use AR-15s because it’s a very customizable gun,” she said. “Plenty of people I know use those rifles every day in their work.”
On Wednesday, she will go to her 10 a.m. literature class wearing orange, set her books down and then walk out of the room with a sign. She has asked other students to join the protest, by handing out papers explaining the effort, posting on Facebook and on Snapchat. Some of her friends pushed back on Snapchat, she said, saying gun laws in the United States work well.
But she hopes many other students will join her. “Gun violence needs to be stopped in this country.”