PARKLAND, Fla. (Reuters) – U.S. students spilled out of classrooms by the tens of thousands on Wednesday, chanting slogans like “No more silence” and “We want change” as part of a coast-to-coast protest over gun violence prompted by last month’s massacre at a Florida high school.
The #ENOUGH National School Walkout was intended to pressure federal and state lawmakers to tighten laws on gun ownership despite opposition by the National Rifle Association (NRA), the powerful gun rights advocacy group.
With some students dressed in orange, the colour adopted by the gun control movement, the walkouts began at 10 a.m. local time in each time zone and were scheduled to last 17 minutes. Many rallies went longer.
The duration was a tribute to 17 students and staff killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14. It was the latest in a series of shootings that have plagued U.S. schools and colleges over the past two decades.
While many school districts gave their blessings to the walkouts, others said anyone who participated would face discipline. Many students defied the warnings and left school anyway. They included over two dozen at Lindenhurst High School on New York state’s Long Island, who were at first suspended, then had their punishment reduced to detentions, according to a senior and the school superintendent.
In Parkland, thousands of students slowly filed onto the Stoneman Douglas school football field to the applause of families and supporters beyond the fences as law enforcement officers looked on. News helicopters hovered overhead.
Ty Thompson, the principal, called for the “biggest group hug,” and the students obliged around the 50-yard line.
“We want change!” students chanted on the sidewalks outside the school. “Can you hear the children screaming?” read one of the signs.
But not all students in Florida were in favour of gun control. About 80 miles (129 km) north of Parkland at Vero Beach High School, chants of “No More Silence, end gun violence,” were countered by shouts of “Trump!” and “We want guns” from other students, according to video posted by local newspaper TCPalm.
At New York City’s Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School, crowds of students poured into the streets of Manhattan, many dressed in orange, symbolic of the bright colour worn by hunters to avoid being shot by accident.
“Thoughts and prayers are not enough,” read one sign at LaGuardia, a jab at a response often uttered by lawmakers after mass shootings.
In Akron, Ohio, hundreds of students wearing orange t-shirts with black targets on the front walked out of Firestone High School.
At Granada Hills Charter High School in Los Angeles, students laid prone on the field of a football stadium to form a giant #ENOUGH, symbolizing the thousands of youth who die of gun violence every year in the United States.
Students at Columbine High, Colorado remembered the 1999 massacre at their school that began an era in which mass shootings became common in U.S. schools.
“I grew up in a community still haunted by the tragedy from 19 years ago,” said 16-year-old sophomore Abigail Orton.
The walkouts were part of a burgeoning, grassroots movement prompted by the Parkland attack and came 10 days before major protests planned in Washington and elsewhere. Survivors have lobbied lawmakers and President Donald Trump in a push for new restrictions on gun ownership, a right protected by the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment.
“We don’t feel safe in schools anymore,” said Sarah Chatfield, a high school student from Maryland, standing with hundreds of other protesters outside the White House.
Chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, the NRA has got to go!” students, many of whom will be able to vote in 2020, marched to the U.S. Capitol, where Democratic lawmakers emerged from the white-domed landmark to praise them.
The student-led initiative helped bring about a tightening of Florida’s gun laws last week, when the minimum age of 21 for buying any handguns was extended to all firearms. But lawmakers rejected a ban on the sort of semiautomatic rifle used in the Parkland attack.
In Washington, however, proposals to strengthen the background-check system for gun sales, among other measures, appear to be languishing.
After protests began on Wednesday, the NRA tweeted a picture of a semiautomatic rifle with the caption “I’ll control my own guns, thank you.”
SCHOOLS VARY IN RESPONSE
Students from more than 3,000 schools and groups joined the walkouts, many with the backing of their school districts, according to the event’s organizers, who also coordinated the Women’s March protests staged nationwide over the past two years.
In Newtown, Pennsylvania, more than 100 students walked out of Council Rock High School despite warnings they would face discipline if they left the building.
But after the walkout, Superintendent Robert Fraser said “the level of maturity and sincerity was amazing” among protesters, and the school district waived any punishments.
At Norton High School in the rural-suburban district in northeastern Ohio, a small group of students, including a teenage boy with an American flag draped over his shoulder, stood apart from a larger gathering of nearly 300 students who walked out of class. One of the students also flew a large Trump flag at the end of his truck.
Ryan Shanor, the school’s principal, said the small group wanted to honour the victims but disagreed with sentiment they considered to be against the Second Amendment.
“They did not agree with everything they thought the protest was about,” he said.
Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus, Jonathan Allen and Alice Popovici in New York; Suzanne Barlyn in Newtown, Pennsylvania; Joe Skipper in Parkland, Florida; Scott Malone in Boston; Kim Palmer in Cleveland; Susan Heavey, Richard Cowan, Sarah N. Lynch and Ian Simpson in Washington; Lindsey Wasson in Seattle; Keith Coffman in Colorado; writing by Jonathan Allen and Andrew Hay; editing by Frank McGurty and Jonathan Oatis