Students around the country are uniting to call for changes in gun policy.
This week marks the first national test of teenage activism against gun violence.
Students across the country will walk out of class at 10 am local time on Wednesday, March 14, for the National Student Walkout, which will take place on the one-month anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The walkout, with the tagline #EnoughIsEnough, will last 17 minutes — one minute for each person murdered in the Parkland, Florida, massacre.
The walkout is part protest to push lawmakers to pass gun reform, part memorial to honor victims killed by firearms. Elementary, middle, and high schools and some colleges are participating in the event, organized by Women’s March Youth Empower.
More than 2,500 walkouts are planned at schools nationwide (and a few internationally), according to Women’s March Youth Empower. Students will march, make signs, observe moments of silence, hand out orange ribbons, and read poems and essays on the personal scars gun violence has left behind.
The walkout unfolds amid a reinvigorated national debate over gun control and school safety, sparked by student survivors of the Parkland shooting. The teenagers have vocally and relentlessly advocated for new gun restrictions and called out lawmakers for inaction. They have repeated the mantra “never again,” a promise to make the slaughter in their high school the last.
Now the generation of students that grew up with lockdown drills are echoing those calls in their own schools and communities. So are those teenagers who live in neighborhoods where gun violence isn’t an aberration but woven into everyday life. They are joined by educators and parents who are angry and scared — but also inspired by the energy and purpose of their pupils and kids.
“I just think it’s so important in this time because we really have such a big and important stage to have our voices heard,” said Aidan Murphy, a 16-year-old junior who’s organizing the walkout at Quincy High School in Quincy, Massachusetts. “Right now is a time that change seems like it’s so close, and the youth, all these high schoolers across the country, are the ones that are going to push us over that line.”
Murphy called it “a revolution of sorts.”
How schools are observing the walkout — from Brooklyn to West Virginia
Students at Corvallis High School in Oregon will stream on to the football field at 10 am, the scoreboard counting down 17 minutes, where the organizers will outline 17 action points. At Audubon Park Elementary in Orlando, Florida, fifth-grade students will observe a moment of silence for the Parkland victims; younger students will participate in age-appropriate observances and their parents will write letters to Congress and the White House. At Unity Prep Charter in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, middle school students are making posters, which they’ll hand out and display if they march around the block.
At Carson High School in Carson, California, students will gather in the quad area. Guest speakers will talk about their views on the Second Amendment; others will talk about their personal experiences with gun violence. At Philip Barbour High School in Phillippi, West Virginia, the heart of Trump country, students will observe a moment of silence and release 17 balloons to honor each Parkland victim. They might live-stream it or make a video and later post it on Facebook.
These are thousands of walkout events planned across the country on Wednesday. Organizers are tailoring their activism to fit their schools and deciding on what might will rally the student body and fit with students’ goals. “We’re actually putting in a lot of planning,” Murphy, at Quincy High, said. “We didn’t want it to be we just walk and out stand there.”
“We want to walk out and say something,” he added.
This Wednesday, March 14th, students are walking out of class for 17 minutes at 10am across time zones to demand Congress act NOW to end gun violence. Wear orange in solidarity + text P2P to RTVOTE (788-683) to register to vote. Join @womensmarchy in saying #ENOUGH! pic.twitter.com/cShGbQfWGX— Women's March Youth (@WomensMarchY) March 12, 2018
Cadie McNaboe, a 17-year-old senior at Philip Barbour High School in rural West Virginia, said the gun culture in her area is something she had to take into account, which is why they’re observing a moment of silence and balloons. “It’s not necessarily for gun control but for gun safety and anti-gun violence,” she said.
The conversation is personal at McNaboe’s school. About two years ago, an armed student threatened the school, holding students hostage for more than an hour. No one was hurt, but they’ve been talking about school safety since.
“It is a challenge,” McNaboe said. “You want students to feel safe; you want students to feel at home. But in this area, in particular, you can’t say guns blazing, ‘We’re going to take away all guns.’ You’ve got to be very clear.”
“I think with this movement, in particular, they’re doing a good job so far of saying we want to compromise, but we don’t want to compromise our values necessarily,” she added.
Students have First Amendment rights to political expression in public schools
Students and teachers who spoke to Vox said their school administrations have been largely supportive — not exactly loving having to plan for a midday disruption, but coordinating with students to honor their right to protest and keep students safe during the walkout.
“My principal came up to me, he said, ‘We can’t condone this in any way,’ but he gave me a wink,’” Fiorina Talaba, an 18-year-old senior at Carson High in California told Vox.
She added that, after the walkout, they’re making a point to go directly back to class. “We want to show that it’s not, like, taking over our schooling. Our education is most important,” she said.
That wink from administrators hasn’t been the case at all schools across the country. A school district in Texas threatened students with three-day suspensions if they participated in walkouts. The superintendent in Prince William County in Virginia had also said students would be disciplined but walked back that statement amid pressure.
The Supreme Court has held that students at public schools have a First Amendment right to express their political views, but schools also have a right to ensure that learning isn’t disrupted. The American Civil Liberties Union has warned some schools that have threatened to discipline students.
Arielle Geismar, a 16-year-old junior at the Beacon School in Manhattan said, her school administrators were primarily focused on student safety. “There definitely was pushback in terms of disrupting classes,” she said. “But we’re going to be loud and we’re not going to apologize for that. I think that’s also the point of the walkout. We’re going to make ourselves heard whether you want to hear it or not.”
And just as the rest of the country is divided on gun control, so are student bodies. Students organizers predicted hundreds of students joining in but knew others would sit out because they disagreed with the political stance. “Our school is pretty split politically, so there have been people who have been clear and said that they don’t support it and say that it’s unnecessary,” Murphy, the junior from Massachusetts, said, adding that he still thinks that’s the minority and participation will be high.
The walkout is entirely student-led, and the Women’s March Youth Empower advised non-students who support the cause to keep away from campuses. Instead, the group recommends those who want to show solidarity walk out from their offices for 17 minutes or wear orange in solidarity.
Teen activism is driving a new push for gun control
The Parkland survivors ignited a new gun control movement by finding a platform in their tragedy. David Hogg rode his bike to school after the shooting to film as a journalist and then found himself on Fox News, where he said there couldn’t be another mass shooting. Emma Gonzalez’s speech led to a chant: “We call B.S.” Cameron Kasky challenged Marco Rubio on accepting NRA donations.
Student activists saw this and recognized themselves. They’ve also tired of being numb to school shootings, of simply moving on, of calling it “another” school shooting. Others have watched guns steal away family, friends, and fellow classmates.
Kari Gottfried, a senior at Corvallis High School in Oregon, is 17; she wasn’t even born when Columbine happened. “I’ve never known a world where there aren’t mass shootings,” she said.
Gottfried and her fellow student-activists feel this issue personally. They were in middle school when Sandy Hook happened — old enough to understand the savagery, young enough to remember their own elementary school classrooms. They’ve grown up with active shooter drills, watched protocol morph in response to the latest tragedy. Gottfried said now, if the fire alarm goes off, students are told to go into lockdown mode. “It’s more likely there would be a shooter than have a fire in Corvallis,” she said.
“We’re no strangers to gun violence,” Talaba, a senior from California, said of her and her fellow students. “When we heard about the shooting in Florida it really spoke to us, and we wanted to have some type of change.”
The teenage activists have another thing in common: social media. Students across the country are connecting with each other, sharing strategies and stories. “In just less than a month, there have been thousands of schools that have signed up to do this walkout,” McNaboe, from rural West Virginia, said. “And I think that’s really the presence of social media, and our generation’s grasp has been so effective.”
Geismar from Manhattan called it an “urgency of collaboration.”
“Our generation is so easily discredited as the social media generation, always on our phones,” she said. “But look what social media has done for this movement. It turned into this national thing.”
The walkout is just the first in a series of youth-led activism around gun violence. March for Our Lives on March 24 will bring students to Washington, DC, and other cities to protest. Next month, students will walk out of classrooms on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting.
It’s only just beginning, Lane Murdock, a sophomore at Ridgefield High School in Connecticut, who organized the April 20 walkout and is participating in an event on March 14, told Vox. “It’s big enough that it scares me,” she said of the movement.
The public pressure has pushed lawmakers to act
Students are also pushing for gun reform with the National School Walkout. They’re focusing on small actions — what teenagers can do to get more involved, including registering to vote and writing to lawmakers.
But the teenagers can already claim some victories. The big one: refusing to let the country move on and forget.
And that has put pressure on lawmakers to act. Staunchly pro-gun Florida bucked the NRA to pass the first gun restrictions in 20 years in consultation with the families of Parkland victims. The law increased the age to purchase a firearm to 21, instituted a three-day waiting period, and created a system for police to petition to remove guns from someone deemed a threat. It put millions toward school safety and mental health initiatives, though it included a very controversial, voluntary program to arm some school employees.
Dozens of other states passed new gun safety measured in the aftermath of Parkland or are mulling new restrictions. Kansas, New York, and some other states are considering legislation similar to Florida’s that would allow for judges to temporarily remove guns if people are deemed a threat. These so-called “red flag laws” existed in five states before Parkland. Rhode Island’s governor signed an executive order to institute such a policy after Parkland.
Washington state banned bump stocks. Cincinnati, Ohio, wants to do the same. Illinois is trying to pass a measure that would require criminal background checks for all gun shop employees; the Parkland shooting has reanimated debate over the legislation.
And some states have backed away from loosening gun control laws. Iowa is letting a bill die that would have removed the permit requirement to carry weapons.
The Trump administration took steps to ban bump stocks in the wake of Parkland and just released a school safety plan. It calls for a “risk protection orders” to confiscate weapons from those deemed a threat and has a proposal to arm teachers.
It also calls on Congress to pass the FIX NICS Act, a bipartisan bill introduced after the Sutherland Springs, Texas, shooting to strengthen the background check system. The White House’s plan is largely NRA-friendly — but the White House did not take similar action in the wake of massacres in Las Vegas or Sutherland Springs, Texas.
Students activist said they’re open to different ideas and debates about the Second Amendment. Geismar said she and her fellow activists are just looking for middle ground. “It’s not Republican or Democrat, it’s about keeping people safe,” she said.
Talaba said she and her fellow students were focused particularly on mental health. She believes tighter background checks will help. But she also sees that as a first, incremental, achievable step.
The walkout is also a chance to stake out their role in this debate. “I just don’t like how congressmen, or these older people, just don’t see that even us kids, we can have these very serious conversations,” Talaba said. “We know what we want from our society: to have less guns, and at some point, no guns at all.”
It is also a reminder for lawmakers to listen, take them seriously. All they can do now is lobby for change. But soon they’ll be the ones with the power to decide politicians’ fates — if not in 2018, then 2020.
“The youthfulness to our movement is kind of empowering because look at this — look at how much time we have left in our generation’s lifetime to advocate for change and to make that change happen,” McNaboe said.
“We’re not stopping,” she said. “I’m not stopping. And I don’t think anyone else is either.”