In the most dramatic display of civic activism by American students in recent memory, tens of thousands walked out of their schools Wednesday and took part in somber, politically charged demonstrations marking the Feb. 14 shooting that killed 17 educators and students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Some events were solemn and at times silent remembrances of the lives lost, while at other demonstrations participants demanded stricter gun control measures and vowed repercussions for elected leaders who failed to heed the call.
Organizers hoped the nationwide walkout—which appeared to be orderly and peaceful, despite concerns about the potential for disruption—would be a powerful spark to a broader youth-led movement around stemming gun violence.
At Stoneman Douglas High, students gathered on the school football field for 17 minutes before moving to a nearby public park.
Leonor Munoz, a 17-year-old senior at the school, told the crowd at Pine Trails Park that the walkout was “for those who will never be here again, but we’re fighting for those who might be next.”
In many places, students did more than gather outside their schools. In Washington, hundreds gathered outside the White House, where they sat with their backs turned to the residence for 17 minutes. President Donald Trump was in California.
Those students then marched toward the U.S. Capitol, where they rallied and were met by Democratic leaders and members of Congress.
“As students we need to make a few things clear,” said Matthew Post, a senior at Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, Md., and the student member of the Montgomery County school board in suburban Washington. “To start, we will not sit in classrooms with armed teachers. We refuse to learn in fear. We reject turning our schools into prisons. We will accept nothing less than comprehensive gun control.”
“The adults have failed us,” added Post, whose remarks roused the crowd. “This is in our hands now.”
‘A Particular Moment’
The scope of the walkout, organized by Empower, an affiliate of the Women’s March organization, appeared unprecedented for a demonstration at the K-12 level, as students began roughly at 10 a.m. in each time zone across the nation. At 10 a.m. Eastern time, the commercial broadcast networks cut into regular programming with short special reports.
On cable news channels, the coverage ranged from a three-minute report on Fox News Channel to some two hours of nearly uninterrupted coverage on MSNBC, with further extensive reports throughout the day. (CNN offered something in the middle.)
Some cable channels owned by Viacom Inc., including Nickelodeon, MTV, Comedy Central, and BET went dark for 17 minutes.
Gretchen Brion-Meisels, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who studies youth political participation, said the wide turnout was impressive.
“Young people are really taking a stand, and technology is allowing them to share what they are doing,” she said in an interview. “This is a particular moment in time when adults need the leadership of youth.”
Student voices weren’t the only ones heard, of course. Elizabeth Hill, the spokeswoman for U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, issued a statement that said “the secretary gives a lot of credit to the students who are raising their voices and demanding change. She hears them, and their input will be valuable as she convenes the Federal Commission on School Safety and works to find solutions to keeping all students safe at school.”
President Trump tweeted about fair trade and infrastructure in the morning, but not about the walkouts. Later in the day, he tweeted about House passage of the STOP School Violence Act, among several pieces of legislation aimed at the issue, but still didn’t mention the walkouts.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., told MSNBC at the rally outside the Capitol, “The [National Rifle Association] has held Congress hostage for years now. These young people have shown up to free us. I believe the young people will lead us.”
Some Face Discipline
Many school administrators approved of student participation in the walkouts, at least tacitly. But others made it clear that students would face discipline.
At Schuylerville High School in Schuylerville, N.Y., pickup trucks reportedly blocked the main entrance and exit driveway, with school staff members and a local sheriff’s deputy keeping watch for unauthorized departures from the campus. Students were allowed to go to the school gym to observe a moment of silence.
In Atlanta, MSNBC interviewed three girls from St. Pius School who left their campus to attend the walkout of a nearby public school. “This is so much more important to me than any school discipline,” one of the girls said. Her friend said, “We do respect Catholic Schools of Atlanta’s decision not to allow it, but this feels so important to us.”
The American Civil Liberties Union had urged public schools to respect students’ First Amendment expression rights by allowing them to participate in the walkouts without discipline.
Josh Bell, a spokesman for the organization, said some schools that had threatened discipline were convinced to allow participation.
“Our message has been even if you can punish students for a walkout, it doesn’t mean you should,” he said.
In Hillcrest High School in Idaho Falls, Idaho, some students staged a counter-protest. Senior Ryler Hanosky held a sign that said, “Arm Our Teachers.”
Some students at other schools declined to participate because they disagreed with the strong gun control message widespread among the walkout participants nationally.
“I would just say that the media represents this as a pro-gun control thing, and I’m not really pro-gun control,” Nick Salvador, a freshman at Grosse Pointe North High School in Michigan told his school paper, the North Pointe, in an interview posted to Twitter. “I’m not going to be walking out today.”
At the iLEAD Academy in Carrollton, Ky., a small rural STEM school an hour’s drive northeast of Louisville, students continued their studies on laptops at the appointed hour. Not one student walked out.
Andrea Hunley, the principal at the Center for Inquiry 2, a K-8 school in downtown Indianapolis, said she was approached by some students who didn’t want to participate in the school’s walkout because “they felt strongly about their Second Amendment rights.”
Hunley worked with those students to figure out an alternative they were happy with—observing 17 minutes of silence in class—and that allowed them to honor the Parkland victims without taking part in the protest.
In contrast, more than 100 middle school students from Indianapolis walked out to call for more gun restrictions. Students’ breath was visible in the 20-degree weather as they chanted: “This is what democracy looks like!”
Students in cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia walked out in recognition of the school shooting in Parkland, but participants there also noted that in some city neighborhoods, they face the prospect of gun violence just getting to and from school.
“I came out because of what happened in Florida, but also because of what happens in my neighborhood every day,” said Alayshia Bridges, a 17-year-old senior at South Philadelphia High School.
David S. Meyer, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, and a scholar of protest movements, was impressed by the Wednesday’s event, but he sounded a cautionary note.
“This walkout is really cool, but it is not something that immediately changes everything,” he said. “It is part of a longer political process. Some of the kids know that. The others are going to learn. Social change is hard.”
Staff writers Catherine Gewertz, Benjamin Herold, Alyson Klein, Arianna Prothero, Sarah Schwartz, and Denisa R. Superville contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2018 edition of Education Week as Student Walkout Taps Well of Anger, Sadness