Education

School walkout on gun violence is Wednesday. Will students in Charlotte get in trouble?

CMS superintendent on gun violence walkouts

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox discusses hopes and concerns about the March 14 school walkouts.
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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox discusses hopes and concerns about the March 14 school walkouts.

At Hough High, students will walk out Wednesday morning, observe a moment of silence in honor of the 17 people gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, then spend 45 minutes talking with elected officials about solutions.

South Meck students will participate in several in-school activities related to gun violence, then invite the community to join them for a candlelight vigil after school.

Outside Davidson Day School, students will display gun-control signs to traffic passing by.

Charlotte-area schools are preparing for Wednesday’s National School Walkout, when students across America plan to leave school for 17 minutes to commemorate the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., one month earlier. While protests have rolled through schools before, this cause seems to be mobilizing students on a new level.

Video allegedly shows the scene from the shooting inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

“I’ve never seen it on this scale or with this much diversity behind it,” said Bronwyn Fulton, an 18-year-old Myers Park High senior who was already politically active.

Students at district, charter and private schools across the region say they were devastated by the slaughter of teens they can relate to and inspired by the courage and activism of the Florida survivors.

“A lot of students felt like it kept happening again and again and again and there’s nothing we can do about it because we can’t vote,” said Michael Dorgan, a senior at Hough High. Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members and elected officials from the state, county and nearby towns have agreed to come and listen to Hough students talk about the need for better protection.

Most administrators embrace the surge of civic engagement. The question is how much they’ll allow protest activities to disrupt class.

“It’s really amazing to see the empowerment of youth,” said Myers Park Principal Mark Bosco. “They don’t want to wait. They want to be engaged now.”

Many schools, including Myers Park, are allowing students to leave class briefly to gather in courtyards or athletic fields. While the national movement calls for everyone to rally at 10 a.m., some are timing their events to coincide with class changes and other natural breaks.

Students were evacuated by law enforcement in response to reports of an active shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Law enforcement from the Broward County Sheriff’s Office and the Hallandale Beach Police Departmen

Others are trying to avoid the distraction of a walkout – and the chance that things could get out of hand, as they did at some immigration-related walkouts last spring.

At South Mecklenburg High, for instance, the vigil for the Florida shooting victims will happen at sunset. During the school day, activities related to civic activism and gun violence will be threaded throughout the day but won’t involve leaving the building.

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina has been fielding calls from students and parents worried that walkouts could bring harsh punishment. Schools can’t penalize students for protesting or voicing political views, though they can impose the penalties student would face for missing class, said staff attorney Sneha Shah.

“We do see a growing number of young people engaging in these types of protest,” Shah said. “We want it to be very clear that they don’t shed their constitutional rights when they walk in the school door.”

Administrators and students say they’re working to ensure that Wednesday’s events are nonpartisan and open to anyone who’s troubled by gun violence, regardless of what solutions they might support.

Independence students
Independence High students Jackson Lohrer (left) and Marion Teshone are working together on March 14 events encouraging classmates to get active in stopping mass shootings, even though the two of them have different views on the issue. Ann Doss Helms ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

At Independence High, for instance, Marion Teshome and Jackson Lohrer say they’re working side-by-side despite different perspectives. Teshome, a junior, is organizing a vigil that will include students placing yellow roses on the football field as they read the names of Parkland victims. Lohrer, a senior who recently joined the NRA, is working with his Advanced Placement government class to register voters and encourage students who can’t yet vote to contact their elected officials.

Lohrer said encouraging teens to speak up is more important than pushing any one view: “I want to hear both sides.”

On March 24, Charlotte-area students will take part in another national movement: March For Our Lives, which is focused on gun control. Survivors of the Stoneman Douglas shooting will speak at the main rally in Washington, D.C., while local students lead a rally from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at First Ward Park in uptown Charlotte. It’s among about a dozen events scheduled for North Carolina, and countless more across the United States and overseas.

Students from Hough, Myers Park, Providence, Charlotte Country Day and Marvin Ridge high schools are among the Charlotte organizers, and the event already has thousands of people indicating on Facebook that they plan to come, said Hough student Jessica Clarke.

“It’s the first time that students have run a huge march,” said Hough student Rosemary Colen, a fellow organizer. She said they’re learning about things like communicating with police and coordinating a roster of speakers.

There has also been talk about an all-day student walkout against gun violence on April 20, but that doesn’t seem to be getting as much traction locally.

Ben Sellers, a senior at Davidson Day School, said he had hoped to rally classmates to take part but school administrators said no, partly because students will be preparing for AP exams. It doesn’t help that the date, chosen because it’s the 19th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting, coincides with an annual celebration of marijuana.

Instead, Sellers is organizing a school-sanctioned Wednesday walkout in which students will stand with signs outside the school, which is located on one of the roundabouts leading into the town of Davidson.

Hundreds of students from West Boca Raton Community High School in South Florida walked out of class on Feb. 20, 2018, and a large number of them began a 13-mile walk to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, where 17 people were killed in a V

Sellers, like many others planning to walk out Wednesday, is a first-time activist.

“This might be a national watershed moment, and kids my age would be part of it,” he said. “It would not be right to just do nothing.”

Several dozen protesters held small signs demanding the removal of the Confederate 'Silent Sam' statue from the UNC campus as the university held its annual University Day ceremony in Chapel Hill on Oct. 12, 2017. Governor Roy Cooper and UNC Chan

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

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