One month after fleeing their school in horror, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High streamed out of their classrooms Wednesday morning as part of a nationwide protest to mark the anniversary of the school shooting that killed 17 people and injured 15 others.
They gathered by the thousands on the school’s football field. They embraced in a massive circle and listened to a song written by their mourning classmates: “They’re not gonna knock us down. We’ll get back up again.”
Then, instead of returning to class, hundreds of teenagers — who under normal circumstances would be at their desks studying for exams — walked to a park down the street, where amid memorials they promised to work on a new kind of class project: keeping the pressure on America’s politicians to prevent another mass shooting.
“We shouldn’t be here, but we are because we can’t deal with the idea of this happening again,” said senior Leonor Muñoz, addressing other students from a stage at Pine Trails Park. “We should be studying for a test we will probably fail.”
Similar scenes unfolded across the country as students walked out of their classrooms at 10 a.m. on Wednesday to urge Congress to take action against gun violence. In a sign that the youth-led gun control movement emerging out of Parkland may have staying power, young people from more than 2,500 schools across America held 17-minute demonstrations in remembrance of the 17 students and staff members killed on Valentine’s Day.
The protesters called for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and for expanding background checks to all gun sales, among other proposals. They also oppose any legislation that would “aim to fortify our schools with more guns.”
In Washington, D.C., Democratic leaders embraced the moment. Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Senate and House minority leaders, gathered outside the Capitol to speak to a massive crowd of students. In South Florida, students at Cooper City High School arranged 17 empty desks in a circle and released doves in a courtyard.
“Adults will tell us we’re too young to understand and that our voices won’t make a difference, but today at this walkout, we’re here to prove them wrong,” said Camille Garcia-Mendoza, a senior who marched out of Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart in Coconut Grove. “Every phone call to our local representatives, every email to your senator, every voter registration drive and every sign held up in protest is weakening the gun lobby and bringing us one step closer to change.”
More than a dozen South Florida schools planned walkouts Wednesday, according to Women’s March Youth Empower, the organization that promoted the protests by working with local students. In Parkland, Stoneman Douglas junior Susana Matta organized the event with an assist from a local synagogue that donated a speaker and microphone.
She said 600 RSVP’d. More showed up.
Hoping to keep order, the Miami-Dade and Broward school districts sent letters home to parents this week stating that school administrators would allow students to peacefully protest. The letters referred to the planned demonstrations as a “teachable moment.” Broward school staff members were instructed to stay with students who walked out of class in order to ensure that they remained supervised and in a designated area.
“Now let’s go back to teaching and learning,” Stoneman Douglas High Principal Ty Thompson told students on the football field after 17 minutes passed.
But that was easier said than done. As Thompson tried to convince his students to return to their classrooms, hundreds walked through the 45-acre campus and out the front entrance, where they were joined by younger teens from Westglades Middle School down the street.
“It’s important we need to express ourselves and this can’t happen again” said Stoneman Douglas student Juan Rojas, 17, as he marched toward Pine Trails Park.
Rojas said teachers and police were urging students not to leave. But eighth-grader Ben Corcos, 13, said his PE teacher didn’t try to stop the students in the class when they walked out of Westglades.
“I did it to pay my respects to all the MSD family, and I did it to make a change in this world,” he said.
When the students arrived at the park, a JROTC cadet was directing the foot traffic. He told students to make their way to the hill to observe a moment of silence. Some stopped at memorials for the victims, set up in the park under bright blue umbrellas, to pay their respects. One student cried softly as two friends comforted her.
One by one, middle and high school students spoke at a microphone that Matta, who organized the gathering, set up near the stage.
“It’s sad that it had to take 17 of our angels for somebody to hear us,” said junior Mei-Ling Ho-Shing.
Not all school districts welcomed the demonstrations. Administrators in some parts of the country threatened to suspend students who participated.
But in Miami-Dade, while public schools were not allowing students to leave campus, they allowed them to demonstrate on school grounds. Some Miami-Dade schools planned lessons and activities, such as Barbara Goleman Senior High in Miami Lakes, where students arranged themselves in letter formations to spell out “NEVER AGAIN” while a bugler played “Taps.” In Coconut Grove, Miami City Commissioner and Congressional candidate Ken Russell led a group of students from the private Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart in a march down to City Hall.
Just north of downtown, schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho gathered with students and the media at iPrep, where he is principal, and gave a fiery speech from atop a playground platform. The superintendent said while Miami hasn’t experienced the kind of horrific school shooting that rocked Parkland, it has dealt with a series of neighborhood shootings during his 10 years as superintendent in which kids have been killed.
“Equally reprehensible, and behind every one of these incidents there is a firearm,” Carvalho said. “There is no place in a peaceful America for an AR-15.”
The national walkout is the latest in a series of protests planned in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting. Stoneman Douglas students have organized a March 24 “March For Our Lives” in Washington, D.C., and another march in Parkland on the same date. A national demonstration is also planned for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado.
Students from at least a dozen South Florida high schools also walked out of class on Feb. 21 to honor the Parkland victims and mark the one-week anniversary of the shooting.
“This is your movement,” Russell, the Miami commissioner, told students at City Hall. “This is your moment. This is your voice.”