Maryland students headed to D.C. for anti-gun-violence march

Josie Shaffer and five of her friends from Pikesville High School planned a sleepover for Friday night. But instead of binge-watching bad reality TV as they usually do, their agenda had a larger purpose: making signs to bring to the nation’s capital early Saturday morning.

Shaffer is among thousands of students across Maryland expected to board buses and head to Washington, joining peers from across the nation in a youth-driven, anti-gun-violence demonstration sparked by the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida. District of Columbia officials have said they were preparing for a crowd of 500,000.

Many of the students want to send their message to the world because the issue of school gun violence has struck so close to home.

“There are a lot of kids right now who are scared to go to school,” Shaffer, 18, said. “What’s going to happen next? Will it be my school?”

The Maryland students are marching not just in honor of the 17 students, teachers and other staff killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School during a school shooting last month, but also for the two students who were shot Tuesday by a classmate, who was killed, at Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County. One of his victims, 16-year-old Jaelynn Willey, died Thursday night after being taken off life support.

Great Mills students and alumni said they planned to travel the roughly 60 miles to Washington decked in green and gold, representing a community that’s felt the pain of a school shooting firsthand.

“The fact that it happened at our school is a big deal for us,” said one of the organizers, 19-year-old Jessica Lang. “We want to show we’re all here as a community to support Great Mills.”

Some students say Saturday’s protest goes beyond remembering those lost to violence in schools. They are also marching for peers lost to Baltimore’s gun violence. Students from Excel Academy, a city high school that has lost seven students to street gun violence since last year, will be marching.

Excel Principal Tammatha Woodhouse, who planned to attend the D.C. rally with a group of her students, said the opportunity to be heard on the issue of gun violence is important to them.

“As a principal who has been dealing with gun violence at an alarming rate, I am just glad that my students have this opportunity to have their voice heard, and really glad that they want to participate and have a voice in this process,” Woodhouse said.

Some students in Baltimore said they don’t feel the need to take their concerns to Washington. Instead, hundreds are expected to show up outside City Hall Saturday morning and rally for local change.

Anna Hilger, a freshman at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, said she originally planned to board a bus to Washington. But then she read an article in USA Today calling Baltimore the nation’s most dangerous city.

“Why would we go to DC?” Hilger, 15, remembers thinking. “We have all this gun violence in our own city. We should march for our lives here.”

The City Hall event is scheduled for 10 a.m.

The gun violence on Baltimore’s streets is personal for Hilger and other Poly students. Jonathan Tobash, a 2016 graduate of the school, was one of the more than 340 people killed in Baltimore last year.

“Gun violence takes many forms,” said Poly junior Barrett Wynn. “We’re not just fighting against school shootings, but we’re trying to secure a better future for all Americans and all faces of gun violence.”

There will be another local march in Annapolis, where students are expected to gather on Lawyer’s Mall to call for stronger gun laws. National organizers estimate more than 800 “sibling marches” will take place worldwide.

But many Maryland students remain committed to flooding Washington. The state’s proximity to the capital is facilitating countless informal trips, with students, teachers, administrators and parents sharing plans to carpool.

Chartered buses will transport more than 200 students from Howard County in a mobilization effort spearheaded by a local student.

In Baltimore, Mayor Catherine Pugh said the city is providing 60 buses to transport some 3,000 city students to the Washington rally. They'll also get T-shirts and lunch. Woodhouse and her Excel students will be on one of the city buses.

Pugh estimated the effort would cost $100,000, which drew criticism from some gun rights advocates who said taxpayer dollars should not be spent on transporting students to a protest rally. Pugh later said private donations had been raised to fund the entire cost of the trip.

Pugh said she proudly stands with the students.

“This is a defining moment for the youth of our City and country,” she said in a statement. “They have had enough of the tragic effects of gun violence and are demanding the change that should have happened long before now.”

krector@baltsun.com

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