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'Students have just had enough:' Walkouts planned across the nation one month after Florida shooting

Students at thousands of schools across the country began walking out of class at 10 a.m. Wednesday,March 14, to protest gun violence and to mark one month since a mass shooting left 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

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 with their backs to the White House. As the silence was broken at 10:17, the crowd began chanting "We want change!" Later, they plan to march 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 victims 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 Wednesday at Columbine. 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.

At Minnetonka High School southwest of Minneapolis-St. Paul, students walked out of classes on a cold late-winter morning saying they want politicians to take up their cause, even if they have to show them the way.

"We're tired of sitting around and listening to politicians tell us what they are going to do without ever actually doing anything. And we're also just kind of tired of adults not making it happen - adults saying what they are going to do and then just entirely blowing us off," said Dominic Barry, 16, a junior at the school. "We're the next generation for all these issues, and we want people to know that we're not going to sit around and let other people not take action on these issues."

Walkout organizers say that nearly 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 military-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."

Students at Stoneman Douglas were expected to leave their school as part of Wednesday's walkout, but school administrators decided to not let them leave campus. Instead, the students gathered at the school's football stadium, and students from a nearby middle school walked over to the school to join them.

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.

At Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, several hundred students walked out of class at 9:45 a.m. for a 17-minute demonstration to honor the victims of the shooting in Florida.

They sat silently in the school bus drop-off zone in front of the school entrance on a bright, breezy morning as names of those shot and killed were read aloud. For each name on the roll call, one Whitman student stood up. These 17 designated students all wore orange T-shirts. Each held a sign with a victim's name and picture, and each clutched an orange helium balloon. At the end of the ceremony, they released the balloons into the blue sky.

"Every time I looked at her face, I thought, 'That could have been me,' " said Beverly Dempsey, 17, a Whitman senior. She stood for Montalto, who died at Stoneman Douglas a month ago.

In the District of Columbia's Capitol Hill neighborhood, students pushed through the doors at Stuart-Hobson Middle School, past the stone columns into the streets, singing, "The power of one," hoodies pulled up to ward off the cold. They held aloft homemade signs with slogans such as "My safety. Your safety," as police motorcycles stopped traffic to let them cross busy streets. "Hey hey, ho ho! Gun violence has got to go!" they chanted as they walked quickly to the Capitol grounds. People stepped out of nearby buildings and clapped and cheered as they walked past.

President Donald 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 to 21 the minimum age to purchase a firearm, 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, Maryland, 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.

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."

Story by Joe Heim and Susan Svluga.  

Joe Heim joined The Washington Post in 1999. He is a staff writer for the Metro section. He also writes Just Asking, a weekly Q&A column in the Sunday magazine. Susan Svrluga is a reporter covering higher education for The Washington Post's Grade Point blog.
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