Emma Moneuse was nearly in tears when she saw how many of her classmates at Manatee High School were joining her in walking out of their classrooms Wednesday morning.
“As soon as the bell rang and I saw everyone walking out of class, I was almost in tears. It means the world to me and especially the students that are at (Marjory) Stoneman Douglas — I’m sure it means the world to them,” said Moneuse, a senior at MHS with the word “Enough” written across her white t-shirt.
She wasn’t the only one. Jazmin Riley also had tears in her eyes as the students gathered.
“It was definitely an overwhelming sense,” Riley said, “It was really pleasing to see all of the people who made it a point to show up.”
Hundreds of students poured from the doors of Manatee High School to join their classmates at MHS and around the country.
Tens of thousands of students from thousands of high schools walked out of class for 17 minutes at 10 a.m. Wednesday to stand with the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and demand action from legislators. The national movement, organized by a youth branch of the Women’s March, called for students and other allies to “protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods,” according to the movement’s website.
Locally, students also protested at Braden River High School, the State College of Florida Collegiate School and New College of Florida, among other campuses.
For Moneuse, the walkout at Manatee High was personal. One of her cousins attends Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and was in class on Valentine’s Day when a gunman killed 17 people there.
“I knew that right away I wanted to act, especially because I have family at Stoneman Douglas and it’s just, I think that these things have gone on too long. And it was in an instant that I decided I would make an official event here, and I couldn’t help but include our voices in this fight,” Moneuse said.
She doesn’t want anyone to go through what her family has endured, and she believes her generation will be the ones to make a change.
“I’m really proud to be part of a generation where everyone is so passionate and willing to do what is right, and it just really goes to show with what happened here today,” Moneuse said.
She and a small group of students leading the event took turns shouting into a megaphone, spreading messages that included demanding gun control and asking students to be kind to one another.
“We are not here because we wanted to get out of class,” one student yelled. “We’re here because we want change.”
Chants of “Enough is enough!” and “We want change!” rang out just before the students returned to class about 20 minutes after they walked outside. Some students held signs with the names of those who lost their lives in the fatal shooting, while others raised posters that said, “Please don’t give my teachers guns,” “Fear has no place in schools,” “MHS stands with “MSD,” and “Honor victims with action.”
“I couldn’t have done it alone, and it wasn’t even just those that spoke,” Moneuse said. “All the students out here today, we were all involved in making this happen, and to have the support of so many students it just helps our voices scream even louder.”
James Heagerty, a senior at Manatee High School, wore an orange Virginia Tech sweatshirt Wednesday. That, he said, was on purpose. Not only was orange a color chosen to show support of the walkout, but he plans to attend the university next year as well. In April 2007, a gunman killed 32 people at Virginia Tech.
Several school officials stood outside, including Superintendent Diana Greene, watching the students and ensuring they were safe and staying on school property. School District of Manatee County officials said the students would be allowed to participate in the walkout as long as they stayed on school property. At Manatee High, that meant staying behind the school gates and between the building and the football field.
The crowd of students swelled to the point it spilled over into the small street between the field and the school.
Outside the gates, a handful of retired teachers – and Moneuse’s mother – stood outside holding signs and showing their support for the students.
“That just means the world, that just shows how deep ’Cane pride runs and how when we’re all getting together to support a movement that’s much bigger than us — how the support really does run deep,” Heagerty said.
Protest isn’t political, principal says
At Braden River High School, the courtyard filled with hundreds of students as first-year Principal Sharon Scarbrough oversaw the walkout as teachers, law enforcement officers and school counselors stood by.
Scarbrough said Wednesday's walkout was not a political statement, but a supportive one following the tragic Parkland shooting that affected her students emotionally.
“The first thing to recognize is they had a lot of different emotions after that tragedy,” Scarbrough said. “Some were shocked, some were fearful or some just became passionate about one certain issue or another. Part of our goal is to help those students feel supported emotionally and personally, as they are dealing with those emotions, and that goes for our staff as well.”
Scarbrough said her staff has had many conversations with each other and the students, and that communication is a key.
“As a staff and administratively, we talk a lot about what we can do to support them and each other,” she said. “The best way to do it is to communicate with each other, to listen, to answer questions and sometimes just being there is the most important thing.”
Senior Sofia Mingote said she has felt the support from her school since the aftermath of the shooting. She said the fact that it happened in Florida made it even more personal for her. She said Wednesday was a chance for the students to have a voice.
“To see our school come together and be this organized and this disciplined and this unified is an important moment,” Mingote said. “I think we are all affected, and we have a lot of students here that have ties to students at Stoneman.”
Superintendent Greene said she was “very proud” of the students and the public education systems.
The walkout, Greene said, also showed her that the students care about more than gun, as she heard one of the students at Manatee High speak to the crowd about being accepting of others.
“Obviously they learned what it means to be a productive citizen,” Greene said. “We’re educating and partnering with parents who are instilling values in young people.”
Remembering the lives lost
At the State College of Florida Collegiate School, students decided to take a different approach during National Walkout Day.
Severalof the high school’s students got together and organized a sit-in on the school’s campus. The hope was to make it less political, the students explained.
“We wanted to make it more about the lives that were lost,” said Sage Samuels, a 16-year-old sophomore.
The victims were not just casualties, added freshman Robyn Bell, 15.
“We wanted it to be something that everyone could participate in, regardless of their stance,” Bell said.
For 17 minutes, freshmen and sophomore students sat or stood in silence inside the school’s courtyard. Each minute that passed was marked by the reading of one of the victims’ names.
“They were a person ... This could be us. This could be anybody,” Bell said as one of the other teen girls interjected, “It happened three hours away.”
Sophomores Victoria Cruz, 15, and Bethany Kruger, 16, interpreted the names using sign language. Signing the victims’ names, Cruz explained, felt much more powerful.
As important as setting aside politics was making participation voluntary.
Bell said they asked those students who didn't want to join them outside to still respect the 17 minutes, and use it as a time to reflect. It was a request that was honored, Bell said, because when students returned to their classrooms the change in mood could be felt.
Afterward, students were given time to express their feelings by journaling, said Kelly Monod, head of the school. Some used the time to write letters to the students at Stoneman Douglas. The letters will be sent to the school, through the professional relationship between both schools’ media specialists.
The idea came from the students, however, not staff.
“I was merely their scribe,” Monod said.
The teens also passed out copies of the newly enacted legislation, so students could also use the time to write to their elected officials.
“One thing that does have to change is students need to make their voices heard more,” Bell said.
College students join protest
Soon after the Parkland shooting, New College of Florida student Hope Sparks thought she should bring the protest to her school.
“I feel like we shouldn’t just be expecting high school students to be leading this movement,” the 21-year-old said. “We have resources on our campus. We have the ability. We should use that.”
The idea mobilized into a short event that nearly 300 people participated in Wednesday morning. Some members of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence joined in, many toting signs that read “Enough is Enough” and “Our Kids Matter.” The New College Democrats offered students a chance to send a letter to their representatives or ask about registering to vote.
“It was horror, as it was after (Sutherland Springs), as it was after Pulse, as it was after Vegas,” said Carol Rescigno, president of the Sarasota Chapter of the Brady Campaign, of her reaction to the Parkland massacre.
The Brady Campaign is named after Jim Brady, who was shot during the 1981 assassination attempt of then-President Ronald Reagan. Brady was left paralyzed and from then on lobbied for new gun laws. The Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act became law, which required a background check on a gun sale by a licensed dealer.
Sparks listed three main objectives to the protest: a ban on assault weapons, universal background checks and gun violence restraining orders for those with violent tendencies to be revoked of their rights to own a gun.
She said she hopes the momentum will continue, as there is a nationwide march against gun violence planned for March 24.
The walk-out Wednesday was punctuated with a moment of silence, with Sparks reading of the names of the 17 people who were killed at the Parkland shooting, followed by a call-and-response of “We have the power to change things.”
Student Chelsea Torregrosa, 22, knew what her sign would say.
“#Enough, because YES, I have lost a friend to a mass shooting, and NO, I don’t want to lose any more,” it read. “For Luis Vielma.”
A friend since her freshman year of high school, Vielma was one of 49 killed at the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in June 2016.
“It’s still a weird loss to have because he was one of those friends who was always there,” she said. “I can’t think of anything he ever did wrong.”
Torregrosa said she looks up to the high school students who are fighting to make a difference.
“It’s very hard to come to terms with it, let alone taking action while trying to come to terms with it,” she said. “I’m really glad that they used all the emotions that they were feeling at that time to enact change.”
Torregrosa knew she had to do something because of her connection to Vielma.
“I had to make sure I came out here for Luis, because he would have been out here,” she said.