US cities see student-led walkout over gun violence

Students across the US walk out of class for 17 minutes to demand stricter gun controls and protection in schools.

New York City – Hundreds of students have gathered in New York City’s Washington Square Park after walking out from their high schools to share speeches and protest signs in an urgent call for gun control and safety in US schools.

The students were just a few of the thousands of those who walked out of their classrooms on Wednesday to mark the one-month anniversary of the shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Alessandra Flores, a 16-year-old student at Harvest Collegiate in New York City, was at the rally in Washington Square Park.

“When the shooting at Stoneman Douglas happened, it was devastating,” said Flores, who is a member of her school’s organising committee.

“But seeing the students finally rise up and getting their voice heard was amazing and that’s why I think it’s so important to participate in this walkout.”

The action was organised by the Women’s March Youth Empower, the youth group of the national organisation.

The walkout began at 10am local time and lasted 17 minutes in most schools to honour the 17 people killed when an armed man opened fire on a Parkland, Florida, high school last month.

Stricter controls urged

The stricter controls students and teachers want include the banning of assault weapons, universal background checks and the passing of a law that would allow courts to disarm people who display warning signs of violent behaviour.

They “have the right to teach and learn in an environment free from the worry of being gunned down in their classrooms or on their way home from school”, Youth Empower said in a statement prior to the walkout.

Ziad Ahmed, a Women’s March Youth Empower member and a first-year college student at Yale University, said “we want our hallways, our schools and our places of worship and our streets to be safe and be free of gun violence”.

Ahmed told Al Jazeera that “young people are rising up to say that enough is enough”.

Students gather in New York City's Washington Square Park for the national walkouts [Andre Roman Medina/Al Jazeera] 
Students gather in New York City’s Washington Square Park for the national walkouts [Andre Roman Medina/Al Jazeera] 

Flores of Harvest Collegiate said school shootings have become all too common in the US.

The New Yorker was born three years after the Columbine High School shooting, in which 13 were killed.

The 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting that killed 27 students and adults happened when she was in third grade.

Flores told Al Jazeera she was distraught when it occurred: “I vividly remember the emotions I felt because these students were my age.”

The recurring gun violence informed her stance on gun control, which she’s “always” supported, Flores said, adding that she felt until now, nothing had been done.

“[T]here’s no change,” she said.

But Florida students have had some success in pressuring representatives to change Florida’s gun laws.

The state recently enacted stricter gun control measures, and changed the minimum buying age from 18 to 21.

The Trump administration also recently announced a ban on bump stock devices, which increase the firiing speed of semiautomatic rifles.

A bump stock was used in the October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas that killed 58 people and wounded hundreds of others.

Urgent reform needed

Jared Sterling, 16, another student of Harvest Collegiate in New York City, said gun reform is an urgent issue.

“When you’re a student that goes to school after a mass shooting you kind of question why you’re still going to school because it’s still dangerous,” he told Al Jazeera.

Students say participating in Wednesday’s walkouts is an opportunity to demonstrate their awareness about larger gun reform debates, and a chance to press for policy change.

“The Dicky Amendment pretty much shuts down any conversation about gun violence,” said 16-year-old walk out organiser Kaitlyn Velazquez.

The Dicky Amendment, passed in 1997, restricts federal funding for gun research.

As such, government agencies face further difficulties in addressing the issue.

Velazquez hopes the march not only “stirs conversation” but helps “to continue the momentum of youth empowerment”.

A march For Our Lives

While some schools have said students will face disciplinary action if they participate in Wednesday’s walkout, other schools have said they will allow the memorial to take place, with many teachers vowing to join in on the action.

New York City music teacher Martin Urbach said it is important to stand in solidarity with youth, while allowing them to lead the way.

“Students have been saying that [they] should be writing their SATs and not their wills,” Urbach told Al Jazeera.

Harvest Collegiate High School students say 'enough is enough' [Andre Roman Medina/Al Jazeera]
Harvest Collegiate High School students say ‘enough is enough’ [Andre Roman Medina/Al Jazeera]

Students plan to keep the momentum going after today’s walkouts, and plan to join other gun control activists for the nationwide March for Lives on March 24.

“Thousands of us are demanding change in various capacities which is a huge testament of the political power young people have,” Ahmed, the Women’s March Youth Empower member, said.”We are going to rise up and demand action and say that enough is enough.”

Those who want concrete policies to address gun violence in schools are going to vote and “organise continued and repeated actions and demonstrate how passionate and serious we are about the issue”, Ahmed concluded.

Source: Al Jazeera