Maxwell Nardi, an 18-year-old senior at Douglas S. Freeman High School in Richmond, Virginia, thinks close to half his school — somewhere between 500 and 700 students — stood up and walked out of class at 10 am on Wednesday, filing out to a fenced area where they read the names of the Parkland victims.
“We can all relate to these stories,” Nardi said. “These aren’t unheard-of people. These are things that we connect with — we all do band, we all participate in sports.”
Nardi and his classmates were some of the thousands of students who walked out of class on Wednesday. The National Student Walkout fell on the one-month anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida; walkout supporters organized around the slogan #EnoughIsEnough. The walkout was supposed to last 17 minutes — one minute for each person murdered in Parkland — though some groups extended that time to honor other victims of gun violence or because students had more things to say.
The walkout was partly a protest to push lawmakers to pass gun reform and partly a memorial to honor victims killed by firearms. Elementary, middle, and high schools and some colleges participated in the event, organized by Women’s March Youth Empower.
By the end of the day Wednesday, more than 3,100 walkouts had taken place at schools nationwide (and a few internationally), according to Women’s March Youth Empower. Students marched, made signs, observed moments of silence, handed out orange ribbons to symbolize gun violence awareness, and read poems and essays about the personal scars gun violence has left behind.
The walkout unfolded amid a reinvigorated national debate over gun control and school safety, spurred in part by student survivors of the Parkland shooting. And as students returned to class, they made a promise: This is just the beginning.
On March 24, students will gather in Washington, DC, and other cities for March for Our Lives, and students will participate in another school walkout on April 20, on the anniversary of the Columbine shooting.
Nardi thinks the walkout and all the activism to come is a redefinition of his generation. If people weren’t listening to them before, they will now. “We’re mad that we haven’t been listened to,” he said. “I think that’s a key point. This is about gun reform. This is about a lot of stuff.”
“Just because we can’t vote,” he added, “doesn’t mean we can’t have a say.”
How schools observed the walkout
At Audubon Park Elementary in Orlando, Florida, fifth-grade students observed a moment of silence for the Parkland victims and wrote letters to Congress. Sarah, a parent, said one fifth-grader wrote in a letter to Congress: “I’m 10 years old; in 8 years, I will vote to change this. I implore you to listen to the youth because I will not be silenced.”
At Woods Charter School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, students walked out of the building. About 200 students from the campus middle and high schools headed toward the school field in silence, a quiet that wasn’t planned. Gathering on the field, the students delivered speeches, read the names of the Parkland victims, and had a moment of silence. They set aside time for people to register to vote or call their representatives.
At Penn-Trafford High School in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, about 200 students participated. “The walkout went beautifully,” Eliza Orlic, a junior, told Vox in a text. For her, the walkout was a reminder that students need more love and kindness. “You never really know what people are thinking, and you never really know how much kindness someone really needs,” she said.
At Carson High School in Carson, California, students gathered in the quad. Guest speakers talked about their views on the Second Amendment; others shared their personal experiences with gun violence. Fiorina Talaba, an 18-year-old senior organizer, said the turnout “was great.”
In Brooklyn, people rallied on the steps of Borough Hall. In Atlanta, teenagers at Booker T. Washington High School knelt in silence in the hallways. In Washington, DC, students walked out of school and straight to the White House.
These were just some of the thousands of protests around the United States on Wednesday. They began on the East Coast and rippled across the country, with some students marching off school grounds. Student activists told Vox that hundreds of students at their schools participated — not the entire student body, but still a show of solidarity to push for gun reform and to honor the victims of Parkland and other shootings.
Matti Kauftheil, a junior at Woods Charter School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, wrote in an email that they were in awe seeing people registering to vote and calling their representatives. “The general consensus was that something great had happened and we had managed to rally students together to start change regarding gun violence,” Kauftheil said.
Teen activism is driving a new push for gun reform
The Parkland survivors ignited a new gun control movement by finding a platform in their tragedy. David Hogg rode his bike to school after the shooting to film as a journalist and then found himself on Fox News, saying there couldn’t be another mass shooting. Emma Gonzalez’s speech led to a chant: “We call BS.” Cameron Kasky challenged Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) on accepting donations from the National Rifle Association during a CNN town hall.
Student activists are tired of being numb to school shootings, of simply moving on, of referring to “another” school shooting. Some have watched guns steal away family, friends, and classmates.
Kari Gottfried, a junior at Corvallis High School in Oregon, is 17; she wasn’t even born when the shooting at Columbine High School happened. “I’ve never known a world where there aren’t mass shootings,” she said.
Gottfried and her fellow student activists feel this issue personally. They were in middle school when the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happened — old enough to understand the savagery, young enough to remember their own elementary school classrooms. They’ve grown up with active shooter drills, watched protocol morph in response to the latest tragedy. Gottfried said that now if the fire alarm goes off, students are told to go into lockdown mode. “It’s more likely there would be a shooter than a fire in Corvallis,” she said.
“We’re no strangers to gun violence,” Talaba, the senior from Carson High in California, said of herself and her fellow students. “When we heard about the shooting in Florida, it really spoke to us, and we wanted to have some type of change.”
The teenage activists have another thing in common: social media. Students across the country are connecting with each other, sharing strategies and stories. “In just less than a month, there have been thousands of schools that have signed up to do this walkout,” Cadie McNaboe, a 17-year-old senior at Philip Barbour High School in rural West Virginia, said. “And I think that’s really the presence of social media, and our generation’s grasp has been so effective.”
Arielle Geismar, a 16-year-old junior at the Beacon School in Manhattan, called it an “urgency of collaboration.”
“Our generation is so easily discredited as the social media generation, always on our phones,” she said. “But look what social media has done for this movement. It turned into this national thing.”
The walkout is just the first in a series of youth-led demonstrations of activism around gun violence. The March for Our Lives on March 24 will bring students to DC and other cities to protest. Nardi says they’re planning to protest in Richmond, where they’ll march to the statehouse in Virginia. Geismar says she’s organizing a bus to bring students down to DC.
Students will walk out of classrooms on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting. It’s only the beginning, Lane Murdock, a sophomore at Ridgefield High School in Connecticut who organized the April 20 walkout and participated in the event on March 14, told Vox. She started the event with an online petition, frustrated with past inaction. The idea took off from there. “It’s big enough that it scares me,” she said.
The public pressure has pushed lawmakers to act
Students are also pushing for gun reform with the National School Walkout. They’re focusing on small actions — what teenagers can do to get more involved, including registering to vote and writing to lawmakers.
But they can already claim some victories. The big one: refusing to let the country move on and forget.
And that has put pressure on lawmakers to act. Staunchly pro-gun Florida bucked the NRA to pass the first gun restrictions in the state in more than 20 years, in consultation with the families of Parkland victims. The law increased the age to purchase a firearm to 21, instituted a three-day waiting period, and created a system for police to petition to remove guns from someone deemed a threat. It put millions of dollars toward school safety and mental health initiatives, though it included a controversial, voluntary program to arm some school employees.
Dozens of other states passed new gun safety measured in the aftermath of Parkland or are mulling new restrictions. Kansas, New York, and some other states are considering legislation similar to Florida’s that would allow for judges to temporarily take away guns from people who are deemed a threat. These “red flag laws” existed in five states before the Parkland shooting. Rhode Island’s governor signed an executive order to institute such a policy after Parkland.
Washington state banned bump stocks, devices that effectively let semiautomatic weapons function like fully automatic ones. Cincinnati, Ohio, wants to do the same. Illinois is trying to pass a measure that would require criminal background checks for all gun shop employees; the Parkland shooting has reanimated debate over the legislation.
And some states have backed away from loosening gun control laws. Iowa is letting a bill die that would have removed the permit requirement to carry weapons.
The Trump administration took steps to ban bump stocks in the wake of Parkland and just released a school safety plan. It calls for “risk protection orders” to confiscate weapons from those deemed a threat and has a proposal to arm teachers.
It also calls on Congress to pass the Fix NICS Act, a bipartisan bill introduced after the Sutherland Springs, Texas, shooting to strengthen the background check system. The White House’s plan is largely NRA-friendly — but the White House did not take similar action in the wake of mass shootings in Las Vegas or Sutherland Springs.
As students walked out of the classrooms, the House passed the bipartisan STOP School Violence Act, a school safety measure that provides $50 million to schools for training programs and revamped reporting systems. It does not address gun violence directly and stops short of what many teen activists have been pushing for.
Yet it’s something — and maybe another sign that people are paying attention to their movement. Nardi says at least they’re taking action — something adults have been unwilling to do. Adults say “‘follow the rules and stay in check, everything will be okay’,” he said. “But it’s not anymore.”
Or, as Kauftheil said: “I feel that students are the future and we are stirring things up.”