Education

‘This is happening’ – thousands of Charlotte-area students join gun-violence walkout

The mood was almost festive as hundreds of Independence High students walked out of school at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

But they fell silent moments later, as a classmate read the names and ages of the students and teachers gunned down last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla.

“These people were the future,” said junior Marion Teshome, “and now they’re gone.”

Approximately 1,500 students, more than half the student body at Independence, walked out, took part in a school-sanctioned memorial and returned to class Wednesday. The scene played out at schools across the region and across America – including at Stoneman Douglas – as young people tried to ensure that adults take action to protect them from gun violence.

Student-led protests took place at more than 2,500 schools from coast to coast, outside the White House and on Capitol Hill and even at London’s American School. At Columbine High School in Colorado, where a 1999 mass shooting launched the era of school slaughter that this generation grew up with, students observed 30 seconds of silence – 17 for the dead in Parkland and 13 for the dead on their own campus.

Some critics said students should stay in class.

“I think this is a little bit more important and pressing than 17 minutes of class,” said Sebastian Bowen, an Independence senior who co-led the event.

Schools in Mecklenburg, Union and Gaston county school districts all had walkouts, vigils and in-school civic engagement on Wednesday, as did many private and charter schools. The student-led events took place in numerous high schools and some middle schools, including Whitewater and Randolph in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Randolph walkout
Students at Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Randolph Middle School display signs during their walkout. An estimated 400 students took part. Courtesy of Lily Sadoff

The Observer got no reports Wednesday of disruption, violence or other major problems.

Principals tried to strike a delicate balance, allowing students freedom to express anguish and encourage action without getting overtly political or creating chaos. Tuesday night, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox told the school board that he supports students speaking out on current issues, but “there will be consequences” if they leave campus, create a disturbance or put themselves in danger.

“While we are not encouraging young people to walk out, we are understanding if they do,” he said.

whitewater students
At Whitewater Middle School in Charlotte, students joined in the #NeverAgain march against gun violence. Davie Hinshaw dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

As Independence Principal David Legrand led a group of journalists to the football field shortly before the walkout, a mother approached the school, complaining to the reporters that the principal had threatened to punish students for walking out. Legrand told her his message had said there would be consequences only if students got disruptive. A chalk line was already drawn along the sidewalk, marking the path of the walkout, and Legrand said afterward no students faced discipline for participation.

In the month since a former student killed 17 students and staff in Parkland, the American Civil Liberties Union has been monitoring threats to punish students for protest.

“We encourage you to support your students who have found the courage to express their voice. Thank you for respecting North Carolina students’ right to free speech,” ACLU of North Carolina said in an open letter to educators this week.

Elsewhere in North Carolina, students at numerous public and private schools in Wake, Durham and Orange counties and Chapel Hill-Carrboro marched out in a show of solidarity.

At Apex Friendship High School in western Wake County, one student held a sign that said, “NRA blood is on your hands.” Students chanted, “No justice, no peace!”

Before students walked out at East Chapel Hill High, the school held discussions about gun violence in each class.

Some Charlotte-area schools kept students inside while offering activities such as speaker panels, letter-writing campaigns and voter registration.

South Meck letters
South Mecklenburg High School students Marian Baez Hernandez (left) and Jaelyn Lockhart collected letters of support and encouragement for survivors of the Stoneman Douglas shooting. Courtesy of Maureen Furr

David Switzer, principal at Ardrey Kell High in Charlotte, said it’s a difficult balance, especially knowing that walkouts shared on social media alert strangers to the fact that a large group of students will be outside and potentially vulnerable.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police worked with CMS to monitor the school events and said they were “prepared to swiftly send additional resources wherever they may be needed.”

Luke Drago, a sophomore at Ardrey Kell, had announced plans to stage a walkout “regardless of consequences.” But he said Wednesday that Switzer agreed to the activity and coordinated security. About 1,000 students gathered outside the school entrance, with additional discussion in homerooms, Drago said: “I couldn’t be more proud of AK.”

At Independence, students laid yellow roses in front of the names of the people killed at Stoneman Douglas as Teshome read their names. Bowen spoke afterward, urging students to register to vote at a special drive inside – anyone who’s at least 16 can pre-register – and to urge older family members to be active and vote.

“We live in a country which allows the expression of ideas. We live in a country where we have a voice,” Bowen said. “That said, voter turnout is embarrassingly low.”

Katie Willett, director of Independence’s Academy of International Studies, had tears in her eyes as the rally ended. “Don’t ever let someone tell you that youth can’t change the world,” she told the group.

As the crowd dispersed, Independence journalism students interviewed classmates. The school has a partnership with PBS to do video reports that can be used nationally.

Seniors Delaney Spiker and Leslie Reyes, both 18-year-old journalism students, say they were inspired by helping shape and chronicle a national movement.

“This is bigger than just a journalism class,” Spiker said. “I was really proud of Independence.”

Reyes said she had been skeptical that the walkout would matter.

“This is actually real. This is happening,” she marveled. “People are striving for change.”

The (Raleigh) News & Observer and The New York Times contributed.

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

What’s next?

On March 24, Charlotte-area teens will join another round of gun-violence protests, taking part in the national March for Our Lives movement that includes a massive rally in Washington, D.C. The Charlotte event will be from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at First Ward Park in uptown Charlotte.

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