Thousands of students across the United States walked out of class Wednesday to demand stricter gun laws in a historic show of political solidarity that was part tribute and part protest.
From Maine to California, the 17-minute walkout began around 10 a.m. in each time zone — one minute for each of the 17 people killed at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School one month ago. Students across the globe also left their classrooms Wednesday in solidarity with the American students’ movement.
The demonstrations continued throughout the day in numerous cities. Wearing orange shirts and waving signs, participants marched through the streets and rallied in front of government buildings, calling on lawmakers to do something before another school falls victim to gun violence.
“This is not a matter of left versus right. This is a matter of public safety,” said Cate Whitman, a junior at LaGuardia High School in New York. “We’re all working together, which is something we haven’t seen from the adults in a very long time.”
In Parkland, Florida, Stoneman Douglas students rose before sunrise to place hundreds of pinwheels around campus to mark the anniversary. A quote from the environmentalist for whom the school is named hung from a fence near the school, setting the tone for the day.
Organizers had expected a modest turnout compared to other cities as Stoneman Douglas students prepare for a March 24 rally in Washington. As crowds swelled across the country, some students made a spontaneous decision to leave campus.
“It really shows us we’re not alone,” senior Sam Zeif said of the crowds.
What the students want vs what lawmakers are delivering
Participants said they want to make sure calls for change in the wake of Parkland take into account the broader context of gun violence in the United States.
For D’Angelo McDade, a senior at North Lawndale College Prep High School in Chicago, gun violence is personal, but not because of a shooting at school. He was shot in the thigh as he sat on his front porch last summer.
“Many of our community members and young adults have established a sense of hopelessness and normalized the suffering that comes with gun violence,” he said. “But they’re ready to see a change.”
Initially organized by the Women’s March youth branch, the National Student Walkout demanded three key actions by Congress:
— Ban assault weapons;
— Require universal background checks before gun sales;
— Pass a gun violence restraining order law that would allow courts to disarm people who display warning signs of violent behavior.
A set of proposals unveiled on Sunday by the White House brought another issue to the fore: arming teachers. Student organizers behind the day of action said they feared introducing more guns or police into schools could turn schools into prisons, with dangerous consequences for students of color.
While demonstrations continued Wednesday, the US House of Representatives passed a bill to fund more security at schools. While the bill had bipartisan support, many Democrats were frustrated that it doesn’t include any gun control measures.
Meanwhile, in Illinois, the state Senate passed a bill that raises the legal age to buy assault weapons to 21.
Students sit out
Some students chose not to walk out with their classmates.
Austin Roth, a senior at Lapeer High School in Michigan, said he’s “100% supportive” of those who choose to march to honor victims of gun violence.
“However, I am not supportive of those who use a tragic event to push their political agendas, such as gun control,” he said.
Instead of walking out, the 17-year-old and other young Republicans from his school gathered in the cafeteria to voice their opinions.
He said he supports federal background checks and is “not completely against” raising the age to buy firearms. But he said he strongly disagrees with the notion of banning assault rifles, arguing they can be useful when confronted with criminals.
“Guns are not the problem. The people are the problem,” Austin said.
In Minnesota, 16-year-old Noah Borba said he didn’t walk out because he doesn’t fully support the movement.
“Because I have yet to have heard many good ideas, the movement seems too vague for my liking, and I would not like to associate myself with something I could end up disagreeing with in the future,” said the Buffalo High School sophomore.
While it would be “pretty cool” if the country banned assault rifles, “I don’t think logistically it’s realistic” to get rid of all the assault rifles already out there, Noah said.
Columbine student: We haven’t seen enough change
In Colorado, students at Columbine High School weren’t even alive when a pair of teen gunmen killed 13 people at their school. But they’ve lived in the shadow of that massacre their entire lives.
“Nineteen years after the tragedy that has personally affected my entire community, we still have not seen enough change,” junior Abigail Orton said Wednesday.
“And within the last three years, we’ve had more school shootings than in the last decade combined. … So I’m here to hopefully bring about that change and to maybe use my voice and my standing as a student, and specifically a student of this community, to bring about that change.”
Penalties for walking out
Some school districts said they would punish students who participated in the walkouts.
In the Atlanta suburb of Cobb County, the school district said it would take disciplinary action against students who walked out, citing safety concerns. The punishment could range from Saturday school to five days’ suspension, per district guidelines.
That deterred some students, but not all of them, Pope High School senior Kara Litwin said.
“Change never happens without backlash,” she said. “This is a movement, this is not simply a moment, and this is only the first step in our long process.”