Students from more than 50 schools in the region left their classrooms this morning for today’s National School Walkout, a 17-minute vigil intended to honor the 17 students and teachers shot to death last month in Parkland, Florida, and to call on lawmakers to toughen gun laws.
At Murrell Dobbins CTE High School in North Philly, students added an extra minute to their vigil to honor Courtlin Arrington, a 17-year-old student shot to death last week in her classroom at Huffman High School in Birmingham, Alabama.
The walkouts come on the one-month anniversary of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a 19-year-old ex-student with an AR-15-style rifle killed 14 students and three teachers and injured another 17 people in a six-minute shooting spree. The incident was the deadliest mass shooting at a U.S. high school in modern history and ignited calls for gun control nationwide.
Many students wore orange, the movement’s color dating back to the 2013 death of Hadiya Pendleton, who was gunned down at age 15 in Chicago. Her friends decided orange was the best color to symbolize their fight for gun control because it’s “what hunters wear in the woods to protect themselves and others from harm. Orange is a bright, bold color that demands to be seen. Orange expresses our collective hope as a nation — a hope for a future free from gun violence.”
In Philadelphia, hundreds of students gathered after today’s walkout at the school district’s headquarters and marched to City Hall to demand better school safety. Members of the Philadelphia Student Union, who organized the march along with immigrant-rights organization Juntos, have been calling for stronger oversight of school police officers (and phasing them out of schools altogether) and alternative school safety measures since a school police officer assaulted a student trying to use the bathroom at Benjamin Franklin High School in 2015.
“No student, educator or family member should have to fear for their life simply walking into their school,” Central High School student Kaila Caffey said. “It should be a place that we all can feel safe, and it’s time for us to use this tragedy to have a serious conversation on what that safety should look like.”
Central High junior Camryn Cobia agreed. “It is our right to demand accountability, and integrity from the adults who are placed in positions to decide our future but don’t care to hear our input, even though we’re the ones least protected. If there’s going to be conversations had around what school safety should look like, that conversation requires the inclusion of our vision.”
At Lower Merion High School in Montgomery County, student body president Catherine McFarland said students followed up this morning’s walkout with more organizing, helping eligible students register to and encouraging others write letters to their representatives in Congress.
“Do we want to be about thoughts and prayers? And we were like: No. The students at Douglas asked for a policy change and that’s what we need to enforce,” McFarland said.
“We value student voice,” Lower Merion’s superintendent Robert Copeland said. “The kids organized themself, they wanted to have a voice, and we wanted to support them in their views.
“I’m a child of the 60s and 70s,” Copeland added. “We had our time to make a speech and make a stamp on society, and these kids have the right to do the same thing.”
Outside Lower Merion High School, ninth-graders Maayan Barasade and Ava Clifford read aloud the death tolls and dates of U.S. school shootings, starting with Columbine in 1999.
“In what world does this make sense?” they asked their classmates.
Walkout organizers were largely underclassmen, who acknowledged that their experience of gun violence is contained to what they see on the news. But several said they knew people who attended Stoneman Douglas.
“I think everyone is sort of on edge, because it does get to a point where anyone could walk in and do that, and kill people,” freshman Mimi Halpern said. “Something needs to be done by our government to change that, because the school is doing as much as they can.”
In Delaware, at least 20 high schools participated in today’s walkout.
— WHYY News (@WHYYNews) March 14, 2018
More than 700 students from the Charter School of Wilmington and Cab Calloway School of the Arts, which house 1,800 students in a shared building, staged a joint walkout. They gathered on the Wilmington school’s football field, huddling together to shield themselves against the cold.
The students heard Mayor Mike Purzycki encourage them to take up the fight for stronger gun laws that his generation had repeatedly squandered, abandoned or opposed, despite several opportunities after mass school shootings.
“Don’t let this event fade into normalcy,’’ Purzycki said. “Don’t allow it to be forgotten along with along with so many other distractions that we have in our lives. … Somehow, those kids faded from memory. Remember each and every one of those kids who died when people start talking about this in an abstract, academic way.”
Kids made posters for each Parkland victim with pointed messages like “Arms Are For Hugging’’ and “Guns Don’t Die. People Do.”
Erin Michalcewiz, a Charter senior who helped organize the event, said she generally feels safe in school, but events like the Parkland massacre have shaken her.
She said a potential “gun threat” last week at her school, based on a student’s social media post, was especially unsettling. “I was not in school that day but I was getting texts all day from kids who were in school and it was terrifying,” she said.
Gov. John Carney did not attend any of the student protests, because he was at an elementary school promoting basic-needs closets, which hold items such as clothing, backpacks, classroom supplies and hygiene products donated to schools for low-income students.
Carney later met privately with student protest leaders in Dover.
“Students from across our state are standing up, making their voices heard, and calling for real change that will make Delaware safer. All adults should be listening, and should share their sense of urgency,” he said. “For these students, the victims of the Parkland shooting are more than names they read about in the news. They were students just like them, who had bright futures and their whole lives ahead of them.
“In our meeting today, I thanked students for their leadership, and we discussed solutions that will directly confront the threat of gun violence,” the governor said.
In South Jersey, high schoolers from Camden to the Pine Barrens to the Jersey Shore took part in some form of protest against gun violence.
Nearly 600 Pennsauken students participated in the walkout and an assembly, where they observed a moment of silence, read the names of the Parkland victims, and heard the school choir sing John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
Pennsauken senior Serenity Sanders, 18, helped organized the walkout and assembly. She finds news about mass shootings so upsetting that she plans to major in forensic science when she goes off to college next year, so she can talk to people who commit crimes about why they do it.
Another Pennsauken senior, Medina Talebi, said she helped organize the day’s events because she’s angry about Parkland and wanted to do something about it. Millennials and teenagers often get short shrift, or ever ridicule, in the media when they try to speak up on political issues. But she warned that many of them are voting age and will have their say at the polling place this year.
“We’re turning 18, and this is an election year, so we’re going to be at the forefront of the polling station and in legislation,” Talebi said. “Unfortunately, I don’t see change happening until someone of our generation is in office in another, what, seven or eight years. But at the same time, I don’t think we should be underestimated.”
At Freire Charter High School in Center City Philadelphia, students and staff walked to nearby Rittenhouse Square. Once there, they used chalk to write the names of loved ones lost to gun violence on the sidewalk. Freire draws students from all across the city.
Afterward, about half of the Freire students broke with the school-sponsored event and marched to City Hall. The rogue marchers crossed paths with students from other schools, and soon hundreds of students packed Philadelphia City Hall’s courtyard.
Students chanted: “We matter too! We’ve had enough!” to highlight the scourge of inner-city gun violence.
“We knew in our hearts we had to do it,” junior Kevin Scott said. “I’m just glad we did it together.”
Freire students spent the early part of the week learning about gun violence and felt a 17-minute memorial for the Parkland victims wasn’t sufficient because it did not explicitly acknowledge the many others lost to everyday shootings. “Seventeen minutes is not enough,” one student told WHYY.
— Avi Wolfman-Arent (@Avi_WA) March 14, 2018
— Laura Benshoff (@LEBenshoff) March 14, 2018
— Philadelphia DAO (@philadao) March 14, 2018
Not all school districts share students’ passion for activism. Some school administrators have threatened to discipline students who participate.
In Needville, Texas, for example, the superintendent said students who walk out of school face a three-day suspension as punishment.
Closer to home, the Pennridge School District in Bucks County allowed students to participate in an indoor ceremony — but told students students who tried to leave school that they’d be disciplined.
And indeed, about 200 of the high school’s 2,350 students did leave the building to rally outside this morning, district spokesman Joe Ferry said. All will get Saturday detentions, Ferry said.
“I think whenever you’re going to engage in civil disobedience, you should expect a consequence,” Ferry said.
my sisters school Pennridge is giving detentions to anyone who walks out. There’s an optional indoor assembly but go outside and you’re done
— J Smith (@smithandwinston) March 14, 2018
In Delaware, the superintendent Caesar Rodney School District warned on the district’s Facebook page that he “cannot support allowing students to disrupt the educational setting by leaving their classrooms.”
Nor would teachers be permitted to walk out during work hours, Superintendent Kevin Fitzgerald wrote.
The ACLU got involved after receiving complaints from some claiming that their comments on the district’s Facebook page were censored. Fitzgerald later said he knows some students will walk out, despite his objections. He didn’t say if they would be disciplined.
In central New Jersey, officials in the Sayreville School District have warned students that they face suspension for disobeying administrators’ orders to remain in class.
And in Gloucester County, New Jersey, the Clearview Regional School District in Mullica Hill closed today after someone made an anonymous threat against the high school. The threat wasn’t specific, the district said in announcing today’s closure, so it’s unclear if it was related to the walkout. Police swept the school but found no weapons, the district noted.
Atlantic City High School in New Jersey also closed early today after a morning lockdown ordered when a student received a threatening text.
WHYY’s Cris Barrish, Laura Benshoff, Joe Hernandez, Zoë Read, and Avi Wolfman-Arent contributed to this story.