Thousands of students in U.S. walk out of classes to protest gun violence

Young people in the U.S. walk out of school to demand action on gun violence in what activists hope would be the biggest demonstration of student action yet in response to last month's massacre in Florida.

3,000 walkouts and other events planned across country

Students at some U.S. high schools were joined by teachers and staff, while other school administrations threatened consequences for anyone who participated in walkouts Wednesday in support of gun control. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida walked out of their classrooms Wednesday, gathered on the campus football field, and embraced each other. As the school chorus played inspirational music over a loudspeaker, the students chanted in unison: "MSD! MSD!"

It was a month to the day after a former student wielding an AR-15 assault-style rifle strode into one of the school buildings and opened fire, killing 14 students and three staff members.

The Parkland protest was echoed in schools across the nation as students staged 17-minute walkouts — one minute for each of the shooting victims — aimed at pressuring federal lawmakers to enact gun control laws. The Parkland students argue such laws will protect others from having to face the kind of trauma they experienced.

More than 3,000 walkouts were planned around the world, organizers said. 

"We are here to protest because we know that more can be done, not just statewide but nationwide," said Stoneman Douglas junior Susana Matta, 17.

"This problem affects absolutely everyone and we will not stop until change happens. It's been a whole month and we're still out here protesting."

The students are working hard to maintain the momentum of their movement; they know such persistence is necessary if they are going to persuade lawmakers at the state and national level to take more action.

Students poured out of schools in U.S. to protest gun violence 1:13

"It's been quite a journey," Stoneman Douglas student Alex Goodchild said.

 "My fear is that we're going to lose the momentum on the national level."

Max Poteat, a student who helped organize a walkout at North Carolina's East Chapel Hill High School, said he was struck by the emotional weight of the moment.

"I think halfway through it really hit me, and I think everyone around, that these are teenagers just like us and that their lives were taken innocently — and that time is needed for change," he said.

Thousands of students also gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, holding colourful signs and cheering in support of gun control.

The students chanted, "Hey, hey, ho, ho. The NRA has got to go!" and "What do we want? Gun control! When do we want it? Now!"

Students gathered outside the White House targeted the NRA, the most powerful gun lobby group in the U.S., in chants and on posters. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

U.S. President Donald Trump was travelling in Los Angeles at the time.

Stoneman Douglas High senior David Hogg livestreamed, on his YouTube channel, the walkout at the school. Walking amid a mass of people making their way onto the football field, he criticized politicians for not taking more action to protect students.

He said the students could not be expected to remain in class when there was work to do to prevent gun violence.

"Every one of these individuals could have died that day. I could have died that day."

Many Stoneman Douglas students left campus after the short rally, and walked to a park about three kilometres away where 17 memorial crosses ringed by flowers stood.

Sophomore Tanzil Philip, 16, grabbed a megaphone and led a group of students in a chant. "What do we want?" he yelled.

"Gun control now!" the group yelled back.

A dozen girls sat around one for Meadow Pollack, a senior who was slain in the Feb. 14 shooting. Others sobbed at the memorial for Aaron Feis, a popular football coach.

Other protests planned for coming weeks

From Florida to New York, students poured out of their schools, marching through the streets or gathering on campus to demonstrate.

At other schools, students created symbols to try to represent the tragedy. At Cooper City High, near Parkland, students gathered around 14 empty desks and three podiums arranged in a circle outside the school, representing the 14 students and three faculty members killed in the shooting. The students then released 17 doves from a box.

Some schools applauded students for taking a stand or at least tolerated the walkouts, while others threatened discipline.

About 10 students left West Liberty-Salem High School — which witnessed a shooting last year — despite a warning they could face detention or more serious discipline.

Police in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta patrolled Kell High, where students were threatened with unspecified consequences if they participated in the walkout. At least three students walked out anyway. A British couple walking their dogs went to the school to encourage students but were threatened with arrest if they did not leave.

The co-ordinated walkout was organized by Empower, the youth wing of the Women's March, which brought thousands to Washington last year.

East Chapel Hill students take part in a student walkout in North Carolina. Students across the U.S. planned to participate in walkouts Wednesday to protest gun violence, one month after the deadly shooting inside a high school in Parkland, Fla. (Bernard Thomas/The Herald-Sun via AP)

Student-led protest revival

Historians said the demonstrations were shaping up to be one of the largest youth protests in decades.

"It seems like it's going to be the biggest youth-oriented and youth-organized protest movements going back decades, to the early '70s at least," said David Farber a history professor at the University of Kansas who has studied social change movements.

"Young people are that social media generation, and it's easy to mobilize them in way that it probably hadn't been even 10 years ago."

The walkouts drew support from companies including media conglomerate Viacom, which planned to pause programming on MTV, BET and all its other networks for 17 minutes during the walkouts.

Other protests planned in coming weeks include the March for Our Lives rally for school safety, which organizers say is expected to draw hundreds of thousands to the nation's capital on March 24. Another round of school walkouts is planned for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High shooting in Colorado.

Gun legislation set to pass in House

In a statement released Wednesday, the White House signalled that Trump is willing to sign legislation intended to curb school violence that is expected to pass in the House soon. 

The White House said the legislation would help protect children and reiterated its support for arming teachers or other school personnel. It said the bill "would be improved by eliminating the restriction on the use of funds to provide firearms training for those in a position to provide students with appropriate, armed defense."

House speaker Paul Ryan, a fellow Republican, told reporters that the chamber would pass the legislation, which would authorize $50 million a year to help schools and law enforcement agencies prevent violent attacks, on Wednesday.

But with the Senate considering other legislation this week and next, any gun legislation may not reach Trump's desk before April.

With files from Reuters