Blog: The Educated Reporter

Student Voices Take Spotlight in Walkout Coverage
The #Enough movement pushes for stricter gun control measures, more funding for mental health

On Wednesday, students across the country joined forces to call for stricter gun control laws, better mental health services in public schools, and to draw attention to concerns about violence in their own communities.

The events were organized in the wake of the February 14 shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 people dead. By some estimates as many as 1 million students from Maine to Washington State left their classrooms Wednesday for protest activities ranging from observing moments of silence to peaceful marches, a remarkable demonstration of solidarity by peers nationwide.

While student protests have a long history in the United States, this particular moment in history has a special resonance thanks to the digital natives-turned-activists leading the walkouts. Education reporters across the country, all at approximately the same appointed hour in their respective time zones, were carrying out roughly the same assignment: to chronicle the protests and give voice to students.

In Littleton, Colorado, students observed 30 seconds of silence: 17 seconds for the Stoneman Douglas victims and an additional second for each of the 13 people killed in the 1999 massacre carried out by two students at Columbine High School. From The Denver Post:

“Even though Columbine happened 19 years ago, nothing has changed to prevent this from happening again,” a Columbine student speaking into a microphone told classmates. Other students tied orange ribbons — a symbol of gun violence protest — to a fence.

The protests were largely carried out by high schoolers, although some middle schoolers and even younger students also participated. In New Jersey, parents signed out their kindergarteners to demonstrate that no one is too young for “a teachable moment,” reported The 74’s Kate Stringer.

In some instances, students found connective tissue between their own day-to-day experiences around gun violence and the violent rampage at Stoneman Douglas High School. At CCA Academy in Chicago, all 180 students in attendance on Wednesday participated in the walkout, along with a teacher, reported Kalyn Belsha of The Chicago Reporter. The school has lost at least 10 students to gun violence since 2013, including 17-year-old Tony Webb earlier this month.

The student protesters numbered in the thousands across the Windy City.

From The Chicago Tribune: “I’m hoping students feel heard and inspired. This is not the end, but the beginning of a nationwide call for gun control,” said Syd Bakal, a senior at Barrington High School, where about 500 students walked out chanting “enough is enough.”

“There are teens like myself who are tired of lockdown drills, fear, and perpetual mourning,” Bakal said.

Rural schools also saw participation — and some pushback. Writing for the Post-Register in Idaho Falls, Nathan Brown described how a few hundred students left their high school to observe the moment of silence, while some classmates clad in hats and T-shirts supporting President Trump and the Second Amendment watched from nearby bleachers, a few of them shouting “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” at the walkout participants. From The Post-Register:

As she wrapped up, [organizer and high school senior Ana] Omotowa told the students listening to her to reach out to others. “One thing that I ask all of you is speak with someone you disagree with,” she said, gesturing toward the other group. “Because there’s a whole rally over there.”

In Birmingham, Alabama, a central location in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, school officials encouraged students to protest peacefully in keeping with the city’s legacy. (Birmingham City is also where 17-year-old Courtlin Arrington was shot and killed by a fellow student just over a week ago.)

Elsewhere in Alabama, instead of supporting the walkout, district officials organized activities intended to promote student engagement. Instead of walking out, students at Florence High School were encouraged to “walk up” to someone they wouldn’t usually speak with, according to Trisha Powell Crain of (the Alabama Media Group).

Threat of Disciplinary Action

The involvement of district officials ranged from assigning staff members to keep tabs on students once they left campus for the walkouts to announcing parallel events that would keep kids in class — and potentially out of harm’s way. The more heavy-handed efforts weren’t well received by some students, who viewed them as attempts by adults to co-opt their protests.

Indeed, reporters made a concerted effort to keep the focus on the students, such as The News Journal’s extensive coverage of statewide walkouts in Delaware. (The 74’s social media roundup is another example, along with EdSource’s piece featuring student voices from across California.)

In Las Vegas, district officials at first warned students they would face disciplinary action for participating in walkouts, but later softened that stance, according to the Review-Journal. Students left class at more than a dozen high schools in the nation’s fifth-largest school district.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., hundreds of students gathered outside the White House with home-made signs demanding changes to the nation’s gun laws, reported Mel Leonor and Kimberly Hefling of Politco’s education team. Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) came out to show their support for the protest and were cheered by students, according to Politico. (President Trump was out of town during the protest yesterday.)

While they were outside, the U.S. House of Representatives was in session debating the STOP School Violence Act, which would allocate $50 million annually through 2028 for campus safety measures. The bill had bipartisan support and sailed through on a 407-10 vote.

At Venice High School in Southern California, walkout organizers set up 14 empty student desks and three empty teacher desks to represent the Parkland victims, reported The Los Angeles Times. About half of the school’s 2,000 students took part in the walkout.

But amid the solemnity and moments of silence there were also calls to action. Near the memorial desks on the athletic field were places to register to vote, sign petitions asking lawmakers to pass stricter gun control laws, or write condolence notes to recent victims of gun violence, according to The Los Angeles Times.

Writing for The Atlantic, reporter Isabel Fattel posits that while the walkouts on their own might not be enough to spur substantive legislative action, they speak to the power of “sustained outrage” that is fueling the momentum of the #Enough and #NeverAgain movements.

Next up is the March for Our Lives protest in Washington, D.C., on March 24, and a day of action on April 20 sponsored by several national organizations including the nation’s two-largest teachers’ unions. The latter date marks the 19th anniversary of the Columbine attack.

For additional national coverage of the walkouts, take a look at Education Week’s overview. Chalkbeat also dispatched its bureau reporters to cover protests from New York City to Indianapolis.