By Emma Derr, Olivia Hewitt and Paige Williams
Students at Lylburn Downing Middle School, Parry McCluer High School, Rockbridge County High School and Washington and Lee University participated in a national walkout yesterday to honor the victims of last month’s school scooting in Parkland, Fla.
Thousands of students across the country left their classrooms for 17 minutes – one minute for each life lost at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The protests also honored victims of school shootings of past decades, ranging from Columbine High School in 1999 to Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
Students in the national, youth-led movement are calling for congressional action to combat gun violence in classrooms across the country. As of early March, there have been 14 school shootings this year resulting in at least one victim’s being wounded, according to CNN.
Last week, Florida lawmakers passed a bill raising the minimum age to purchase a firearm to 21. Companies have also introduced similar policies, with retailers from Dick’s Sporting Goods to Walmart implementing the same age restriction.
But lawmakers in Washington have shied away from tougher gun restrictions, despite President Donald Trump’s earlier promise to the contrary. Trump later backed off in his support for changes. The National Rifle Association has opposed stricter measures on firearms and instead has called for the arming of teachers, which the president supports.
Lylburn Downing students urge bipartisanship
In the walkout at Lylburn Downing Middle School, students emphasized the importance of ending gun violence and promoting school safety.
“The bottom line is that kids’ lives are on the line, our lives are on the line,” said Arden Courtney-Collins, an eighth-grader. “We really need to just band together and compromise.”
A group of about 150 students and community members gathered in neighboring Richardson Park for the walkout. Everyone first stood for a moment of silence to honor the victims of the Parkland shooting.
For the remaining 17 minutes, student leaders spoke about the need to expand mental health services, strengthen gun control laws and increase school security nationwide. They stressed that the event wasn’t intended to highlight individual political differences, but to remind the community that safety should be a common priority.
“Whether or not you blame guns or mental health, bipartisanship is the only way to solve this problem. The longer we wait, the more lives that will be lost,” Courtney-Collins said.
Eighth-grader Aine Macdermott led the student effort and said she wanted to participate in the walkout because she doesn’t think kids should ever be afraid to go to school.
“We decided to do something for once because we realized [that] even though we don’t know anyone who was killed…we could have known someone that was,” she said.
Principal Jason White said the administration supported the walkout and welcomed students to express their beliefs, while understanding and respecting all different perspectives.
“We encourage student leadership every day in our building, and this was an opportunity for us to kind of, for lack of a better term, put our money where our mouth is,” he said.
Eighth-grader Loraine Lilly asked students to write to their representatives in Congress and persuade them to work together in addressing gun violence in schools.
“If eighth-graders and teenagers can do it, then they should be able to as well,” she said.
Lylburn Downing enrolls about 200 students in grades six through eight.
Parry McCluer students ask Rockbridge residents to keep an open mind
Parry McCluer High School students braced for yesterday’s low temperatures and walked out of their classrooms in tribute to the Parkland shooting victims. Teens silently joined together outside, some with blankets and others huddled together, posters in hand.
Senior Alyssa Rice helped organize the event and spoke before a group of over 30 students about gun reform. At first, Rice wasn’t sure how many of her approximately 400 classmates would show up for the demonstration.
“It’s such a rural area,” she said. “People do have a strong opinion about guns here. I urge [others] to open their eyes, to see what we see, not just to change your opinion but have an open mind to what’s going on around us. Something needs to be done.”
Students said the school’s administration and teachers supported their decision to leave class, as long as they did so peacefully.
Senior John Fitzgerald Jr. said he hopes the walkout will bring awareness to the lives lost in the Florida shooting and will help prevent future violence in schools.
“There might not be a lot of us here,” he said. “But it still happened to a school. And it showed us that it could happen to anybody.”
Freshman Skylar Hartless said she was thrilled by the number of students who participated in the protest at her school. Hartless said she decided to walk out to voice her support for stronger gun control measures.
“My mom shouldn’t have to be scared of me coming to school every morning,” she said. “I think it’s wrong that we have to do this. The government should do something.”
Parry McCluer High School has a zero-tolerance policy regarding guns on school property.
Washington and Lee community writes letters to Parkland students
About 200 students and professors left their classrooms yesterday and lined the Colonnade at Washington and Lee University.
During the 17 minutes of silence, members of the W&L community wrote 170 letters of support to students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The letters will be mailed to Parkland on Monday.
W&L’s Amnesty International organized the walkout. Rossella Gabriele, the club’s president, said she encouraged students to write letters because she did not want the demonstration to be purely symbolic.
“If this was going to be a moment of great unity and power,” she said, “then [I wanted us] to share that and to share the good emotions with the students of Parkland who are still recovering.”
Junior Katherine Oakley said she was surprised by how moved she felt during the demonstration.
“It was more powerful than I was expecting it to be,” she said. “This time, I felt like we were really…acknowledging the significance of the things that had been going on at a national scale.”
Gabriele said the walkout participants had more than one goal. On one level, she said students should band together in support of one another.
“On another level, we are part of a national movement to grab the ear of deaf lawmakers and make then listen that we don’t want any more kids dying.”
Local students, teachers continued the discussion at Lexington School Board meeting
At their monthly meeting Wednesday, members of the Lexington City School Board heard from students and teachers who had participated in the walkout.
“We have grown up with these school shootings to the point that they are almost normalized,” Arden Courtney-Collins, a Lylburn Downing Middle School student, told the board. “What does that say about our country?”
Lorraine Lilley, another Lylburn Downing student, said the protest was peaceful and allowed students to express their frustration with lawmakers.
Patrick Bradley, a Latin teacher at Rockbridge County High School, read a statement signed by more than 30 teachers at Rockbridge High School.
“For our students, feeling safe at school is no longer a given,” the teachers said.
The letter called for local elected officials to “tell Richmond and Washington that they need to respond to the will of their constituents in Rockbridge County and beyond.”
Superintendent Scott Jefferies said he is proud of the students who participated in the protest.
Gus Cross also contributed to this story.