Thousands of students from across Columbia Public Schools walked out of class Wednesday to remember the victims of the Parkland, Florida, shooting last month.
It was part of a national, student-driven walkout. Walkouts were held outside at Rock Bridge, Hickman, Battle and Douglass high schools and mostly inside at the public middle schools. Middle and high school students walked out at the private Columbia Independent School as well. At Father Tolton Regional Catholic High School, a Mass was dedicated to ending violence.
"We just kind of want to show our community that students, even though we’re underage, we don’t really have rights to vote and we can’t really make these decisions for ourselves, we do have an opinion and we do have a voice that we want to be heard by adults so they pass down our concerns in legislation," said Claire Nieder, student body president at Hickman.
"I am not going to be a statistic," Rock Bridge sophomore Michael Bledsoe said.
Students were inspired by a national movement organized by Youth EMPOWER, which was involved in organizing the January 2017 Women’s March in Washington. The group created the National School Walkout, identified on social media with the hashtags #Enough, #NeverAgain and #NationalSchoolWalkout.
The events began at 10 a.m. and lasted 17 minutes — one minute in memory of each of the 14 teenagers and three adults who died in the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Each local school where students participated took different approaches to the walkout. District spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said that at Douglass, a handful of students walked around the building in support of the movement. At Rock Bridge, Hickman and Battle high schools, hundreds participated.
Rock Bridge: Students, legislators need to act now for change
Several hundred students packed the Rock Bridge courtyard to honor the victims of the Parkland shooting and to protest gun violence.
"Just the sheer numbers of people who came out, that shows that we’re not alone and as a united group we can make a difference," junior Ann Fitzmaurice said.
Some students stood on benches, and others held their phones out above the crowd to take pictures.
For 17 minutes, students held up signs with slogans such as "Born & Raised in a Mass Shooting Generation." Other signs listed the names of shooting victims and schools where mass shootings have occurred. One sign referenced Tide Pods, faulting the government for taking action when children ate them but not following school shootings. Another criticized the National Rifle Association.
Several students held signs showing their support for the Second Amendment, which gives citizens the right to bear arms.
Administrators supervised but did not participate, because as school district employees, they're not allowed to do so during school hours.
Maddie Marrero, a sophomore who helped organize the Rock Bridge walkout, greeted students as they circled around. She welcomed students to come up and share their thoughts and called on them to add their names to a sign-up sheet if they wanted to continue the discussion.
One student read out the names of shooting victims. Another led a chant, stating the name of a school impacted by gun violence as the crowd shouted back, "We march with you!"
"I am a person," Bledsoe told his peers amid applause and cheers, "and I am angry about what is happening."
Bledsoe was one of several students who spoke against AR-15 rifles, a lightweight semiautomatic rifle.
Senior Kristine Cho told the crowd how she had cried with a friend who lived in Florida, about 30 miles away from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
"I am tired. I am scared. But I am ready to take action," Cho said.
Cho called on students to register to vote, to join campaigns and to hold lawmakers accountable.
The Rock Bridge event ended with a minute of silence, after which the students filed back into the school. A cluster of about 20 students remained, discussing the protest and politics.
"The moment that I walked out of my Pre-Calc class and I looked around, I saw a big group of people just walking down the hallway," Fitzmaurice said. "It honestly made me tear up a little that all of these people were coming to support the same representation of the same cause."
Throughout the protest, there were moments when the crowd quieted to listen to a speaker or cheered. But there were also times when unrelated chatter dominated. Fitzmaurice acknowledged that some students might have come out just to skip class or because they thought it might be entertaining to watch.
"People are going to take different things away from this," Fitzmaurice said. "People are going to get into arguments, but that’s going to keep the issue alive and that’s going to keep people talking and thinking about what we can do as children — not children, but people who can’t quite vote or people who are just getting into voting."
Hickman: One school united against gun violence
Matthew Ross, assistant principal of Hickman High School, estimated that between 1,000 and 1,200 students stood in silence for 17 minutes on Hickman’s north quad Wednesday morning. At each minute mark, Nieder read the name of a victim of the Parkland shooting:
"Alyssa Alhadeff, 14."
"Scott Beigel, 35."
"Martin Duque Anguiano, 14."
Some students held signs on which they’d written "#Enough" and "We want change." Two girls pumped their fists in the air for every victim’s name. A teacher comforted a crying student. Several groups of students huddled together.
At the conclusion of the 17 minutes, Nieder addressed the crowd.
"In a society where we may not have a vote, we do have a voice," she called through a megaphone.
Leila Gassmann, a junior and a member of Hickman's student government, said she had been optimistic a lot of students would participate.
"I just think its really hard for high school students to have a voice. I can’t vote yet and most people here can’t vote yet and it’s just a way to show that we have strong opinions —maybe not the same opinions— but we all have strong opinions on this issue and were not just going to be complacent," Gassmann said.
The student government scheduled every minute of Hickman’s walkout and were stationed at each exit to help guide students outside. Nieder said their goal was to be as organized as possible so the administration would have an easier time keeping the kids safe.
Student safety was the primary concern of district employees. In an email to parents, Superintendent Peter Stiepleman said that although classes wouldn't be dismissed, students would be provided with a safe place to express themselves with adult supervision. Any missed work would be the student's responsibility, and any student who didn't return to class after the walkout would receive an unexcused absence and would be disciplined accordingly. In other parts of the country, students faced the possibility of expulsion.
Neider also said the student government was careful to keep politics out of the protest, instead rallying everyone around the movement’s slogan, #NeverAgain.
"It’s such a non-biased statement that everyone can get behind," Nieder said. "We’re not trying to create a political statement or anything like that. We’re just trying to create a unified voice. ... We don’t want this to ever happen again. We want precautionary measures to be taken."
Nieder said the student government started preparing for the walk out after students at a Kewpie student forum showed support for it. They handed out flyers and tried to spread the word to make sure every student knew about the protest and its purpose.
She and Gassmann said another reason for the walkout was to let the administration know that students want to be kept in the loop. On March 2, a 15-year-old was taken into custody on suspicion of making a Facebook threat toward Hickman High School students. The students said they didn’t find out about the threat until they got home and heard about it from their parents.
"We have told administration that we would like to be emailed at least at the end of the day when the parents are emailed because right now we are not told at all," Gassmann said. "You have to hear from your parents when you get home. So I understand their reasoning but I think everyone is a little frustrated that we don't know what is going on in our own school."
"We are kind of uninformed when these threats happen but they’re ultimately going to affect us and our voice isn’t really being heard," Nieder said. "Only emails to our parents are being sent out and we have to go home and ask our parents."
Although the majority of the roughly 1,600 students at Hickman participated, at least one student there did not support walking out.
Senior Saige Wells stood by the front door with wearing a white T-shirt that read "#Standupnotwalkout."
"Walking out really doesn't do anything," he said.
Wells said students should stand up for what's right and make a change in the school. He said he understands having a moment of silence but doesn't think walking out is the answer.
Battle: Send a message to lawmakers peacefully
At Battle, several hundred students walked onto the football field at 10 a.m., and the scoreboard clock began to countdown 17 minutes. Sprinkled throughout the crowd were bright-orange T-shirts that read "#NeverAgain" across the front. The shirts were sold to students for $5 before school and at lunch earlier in the week.
Junior Grant Bradshaw stood in front of his peers to deliver a speech that he said he wrote the night of the Parkland shooting. Bradshaw said he watched videos of some of Robert Kennedy’s speeches that night and was inspired to write his own — at 2 a.m.
"I, along with millions of others, believe that the current leaders of our government have failed us in their so-called efforts to ensure our safety, by placing their own interests of power and greed before the interests of the people that they swore to protect and defend," he told the crowd.
Some students sat silently at the front and listened to Bradshaw. Others stayed toward the back of the group and talked to each other.
At the end of Bradshaw’s speech, four minutes remained on the clock, so he asked his peers to join him in sitting silently in memory of the Parkland victims. Voices quieted but didn’t completely silence.
Bradshaw began planning the event just last week. He said he heard what students at Rock Bridge were doing through a Rock Bridge Young Democrats group chat and noticed there hadn’t been talk of anything happening at Battle. He started talking about it and sharing about it on social media then.
"I’ve been spreading the word as fast as I could," Bradshaw said.
Kiessence Bassett, a junior who joined the walkout, emphasized the importance of supporting a peaceful walkout.
"I feel like civil disobedience actually means civil," Bassett said. "A protest can be civil disobedience, but I think that we’re in a school environment and we’re kind of protesting about being peaceful in our schools, and I think that’s what we should practice."
After the walkout, both Bradshaw and Bassett remarked on the large turnout. Neither were expecting so many students to participate.
"Walking out for an entire day, and being loud and vocal, it probably wouldn’t have conveyed the point as well as being respectful, making a civil speech or statement and sitting down in silence for only a short period of time," Bradshaw said.
Both Bassett and Bradshaw said the climate around the walkout felt supportive at Battle. Although teachers were not allowed to participate in the walkout, Bassett and Bradshaw said they felt comfortable expressing their beliefs.
"Our teachers really can’t support or persuade us, but I do feel like we had enough support," Bassett said. "We were allowed to voice what was going on and spread the word."
When the scoreboard clock ran out, students began to head back into the building. Peers hugged and thanked Bradshaw for organizing the walkout and speaking on the issue.
For Bassett and Bradshaw, there were exams to take later Wednesday. But there is also more work to be done. Bradshaw said he will attend another student-driven event, the March for Our Lives, on March 24 in downtown Columbia.
A second walkout is planned nationally for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting in which 15 students and teachers died, including the teenage gunmen.
"We’re trying to get something done, and if we start and then stop and then start and stop and start and stop, it’s not going to get done," Bassett said.
Bradshaw expressed frustration with legislators, mentioning the lack of gun reform legislation.
"If this were able to reach any of our legislators, or senators: Stop taking money from the NRA, and the time is now for change," Bradshaw said. "It’s always been the time for change because too many people have died."