Hundreds of Baltimore students walk out of school, march to City Hall for gun safety

Hundreds of Baltimore students walked out of class Tuesday and marched to City Hall to protest school gun violence.

Tuesday’s event in Baltimore brought together public and private schools from across the city, including the Friends School of Baltimore, Baltimore City College, Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, Baltimore School for the Arts and the Roland Park Country School. Many students marched for miles, snaking through the city and chanting, “Guns down! Grades up!”

The protest comes a few weeks after a deadly shooting at a Florida high school left 17 students and teachers dead. The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas have become powerful voices for gun control, galvanizing a movement among young people across the country.

"Students were willing to walk out, to let go of whatever test or project they had and put their energy towards the protection of their friends," said Cassius Comfort, a senior at Friends School who walked nearly five miles to the plaza outside City Hall.

Mayor Catherine E. Pugh and Baltimore Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa addressed the students, who later participated in a 17 minute “lie-in” to honor the Florida victims. Pugh said the city plans to spend an estimated $100,000 to send students on a fleet of free buses to the national march in Washington planned for later this month.

"America needs to hear the voices of the young people of Baltimore," she said.

The local students compiled a list of demands, which originally called for stricter gun control legislation, including the passage of a “red flag law” allowing judges to temporarily order gun owners to surrender firearms if they are deemed a danger to themselves or others. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has endorsed the creation of such a law.

By the end of the march, the students had chosen to limit their demands to more local action: They called for more frequent active shooter drills and comprehensive follow-up investigations into allegations of school police misconduct.

They also want all schools to establish social work and counseling services “to prevent the culture of violence,” among other measures.

The student organizers from Friends said they were disappointed with the mayor’s response and her plan to spend money on transporting students to the March 24 march in Washington. The students said they wanted Pugh to focus on action to make Baltimore schools safer and better, such as spending money to improve school infrastructure.

“Spending money on lunches and t-shirts is not going to protect students,” said Friends senior Carrie Zaremba.

Unique Chisholm, a 17-year-old Dunbar student, said she wants to see universal background checks for gun owners and the minimum age for purchasing a gun raised to 21 years old.

“Something needs to change,” she said. “Guns just need to be stopped. People need to stop killing people. Period.”

The students developed a code of conduct calling for a peaceful demonstration, and Baltimore police escorted groups of students from their schools to downtown.

Quinn Parker, 16, who walked out of his Spanish class at Friends, held a sign that read, “We stand with Excel Academy.” Students at the West Baltimore school have lost seven of their classmates to gun violence over the last two years.

“Our city, with its history of such high homicide rates, needs to do a better job of keeping its students safe — everywhere,” Parker said.

Some students said they felt overwhelmed by how many people showed up. As they marched near the Johns Hopkins University campus, one girl turned around, looked at the massive line of kids behind her and said to a friend: "Wow, that's all us."

It’s not often, some said, that Baltimore students of all races and genders, from public and private schools in different parts of the city, come together to march.

“We’re all teens,” said D’Mayre Cash, an 18-year-old student at Bard High School Early College. “We may all be from different places, but we all feel that pain.”

De Sousa, standing outside City Hall, told the students their message was clear and unobjectionable.

"Every day when you come to school you have a right to learn, you have a right to be safe," he said. “I stand beside you 100 percent. Enough is enough.”

Elizabeth Sacktor, a sophomore at the Baltimore School for the Arts, said it’s important the city not grow numb to violence on its streets or in schools across the nation. Although the 16-year-old girl can’t yet vote, she still wants politicians to know she has something to say.

“Everyone is just so used to the violence and gun threats and children fearing for their lives,” she said. “I’m participating to remind people in power that this is an issue. Children should not fear for our lives while trying to get an education.”

Elijah Eaton, an 18-year-old student at City College, set up a voter registration booth outside City Hall.

“Gen Z is going to vote staunchly against gun violence,” he said.

Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises said in a statement that the district encourages students “to make themselves heard about an issue that affects them profoundly.” But she said principals were encouraged to use time and space within their buildings for students to discuss gun violence and steps to prevent it.

“With respect to today’s protest, school police are working with city police to ensure that students who left our buildings are safe and do not impede traffic or cause potential danger for themselves or others,” she said. “Principals of schools whose students participated will continue working with their school communities to ensure future protests are both productive and safe.”

At Friends, students who participated in the walkout will receive a Saturday detention, said the 16-year-old organizer, Amee Rothman. Friends School administrators did not respond to requests for comment but an email sent to students’ families said students who left school without permission “will be assigned to come to a morning of thinking and action on Saturday April 7” during which they will meet with interested faculty “to further their work on how Friends School can disrupt the problem of gun violence in our city.”

Charlotte Corcoran, 14, said she had no reservations about walking out of Roland Park Country School, regardless of the potential consequence for skipping class. She carried a sign that read: “I’m missing a day of school because 17 are missing the rest of their lives.”

trichman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/TaliRichman

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