In Massachusetts and Ohio, students said they'll head to the statehouse to lobby for new gun regulations.
Students all across the country--from middle school to college--began planned walkouts on Wednesday, calling on lawmakers in state legislatures and in Congress to enact stricter gun laws in the wake of the recent mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
A month after 17 students and instructors were killed at the school here in Parkland, Fla., nearly 3,000 schools across the nation planned to leave class at 10 a.m. local time Wednesday for 17 minutes--one minute for each victim.
At Marjory Stoneman Douglas, two walkouts were planned. Citing safety concerns, student government officials and administrators urged students not to leave campus, but to walk to the football field with teachers. Yet some students balked at the idea of a chaperoned walkout, saying they wanted to get off campus and spread their message to the broader public.
When the first bell rang Wednesday at the high school, Susana Matta Valdivieso was not sitting in Spanish class. Instead, the 17-year-old junior was hauling a stack of handwritten placards across a community park in the hope that her classmates would eventually come outside and join her.
“I’m nervous and excited because I’ve never spoken in front of a crowd of people before,” Valdivieso said with laughter as she leafed through the speech she had typed up the night before.
While student government leaders and administrators were urging Parkland students to remain on campus and walk with teachers to the school football field, Valdivieso was hoping to coax students off school grounds to take part in a public rally at the nearby North Community Park.
“This is a student-led movement,” Valdivieso said after dispatching two close friends into the school with a plan to lead their classmates outside. “We want to communicate our message to the press and the public.”
Organized by the youth branch of the Women’s March, called Empower, the National School Walkout is urging Congress to take meaningful action on gun violence and pass federal legislation that would ban assault weapons and require universal background checks for gun sales.
In Massachusetts and Ohio, students said they’ll head to the statehouse to lobby for new gun regulations.
With nearly 3,000 walkouts planned across the country--at elementary schools, high schools and universities--organizers published a “tool kit” online that offered students tips on how to organize, get support from parents and guardians and share information on social media.
Earlier this week, Robert W. Runcie, superintendent of Broward County schools in Florida, notified parents he had instructed staff not to interfere with peaceful student-led protests.
“Such occasions are teachable moments, during which students can demonstrate their 1st Amendment right to be heard,” Runcie wrote in a letter to parents. “In the event students walk out or gather, school principals and assigned staff will remain with students in a designated walkout area, so that supervision is in place.”
Over the last month, students across Florida and the nation have staged spontaneous walkouts, with some leading to disciplinary action. Two weeks after the Parkland shooting, dozens of students at Ingleside Middle School in the Phoenix area were given one-day suspensions after they walked off campus.
In Needville, Texas, 20 miles southwest of Houston, Superintendent Curtis Rhodes warned students that anyone who left class would be suspended for three days, even if they had permission from their parents.
“Life is all about choices and every choice has a consequence whether it be positive or negative,” Rhodes wrote in a letter to parents posted on social media. “We will discipline no matter if it is one, fifty, or five hundred students involved.”
On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union issued advice for students who walk out, saying schools can’t legally punish them more harshly because of the political nature of their message. In Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Texas, some lawyers said they will provide free legal help to students who are punished.
In Parkland, school officials urged students not to leave campus.
“We’re just trying to protect the students,” said Jaclyn Corin, 17, the high school’s junior class president. “We’re telling everyone not to leave campus, but we can’t stop them.”
David Hogg, a 17-year-old senior and leading activist, said he worried students would be “a group of soft targets” if they left campus.
In Florida, the Parkland students’ protests in recent weeks have seen some results.
Last week, Gov. Rick Scott, in a rebuke of the National Rifle Assn., signed into law a measure that, among other things, raises the minimum age to buy a firearm from 18 to 21 and bans the sale or possession of “bump stocks,” which allow semiautomatic rifles to mimic machine guns.
The walkouts on Wednesday are among several protests planned for coming weeks. The March for Our Lives rally for school safety is expected to draw hundreds of thousands to the nation’s capital March 24, its organizers said. And another round of school walkouts is planned for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado.
(Special correspondent Jarvie reported from Parkland and Times staff writer Lee from Los Angeles.)