'We're alive. They're dead.' Baltimore-area students join nationwide demonstration against gun violence

Standing on the bleachers and staring out onto Baltimore Polytechnic Institute’s football field, 16-year-old Barrett Wynn looked angry. He yelled into his megaphone, a fist balled up at his side.

Wynn told his classmates — hundreds of whom had gathered on the field Wednesday as part of a national protest against gun violence — that he was more than just mad. He was afraid.

“I’m scared to death that one day I’m going to arrive in my car and leave in a coffin,” he said. “I’m scared that one day I’m going to walk out into the hall and see my best friend bleeding to death.”

Students at the Baltimore high school were among thousands in Maryland and across the nation who poured out of their schools at 10 a.m. on Wednesday to honor the 17 lives lost last month in the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

The “#Enough National School Walkout” was the latest action in the movement led by young people against gun violence.

The Poly students lay down on the football field for 17 minutes of silence to honor the Florida victims.

One girl tried to get her classmates to quiet down.

"C'mon guys!” she yelled out. “We're alive. They're dead."

Find live updates from schools around Baltimore »

Students at dozens of area schools participated. Students at Franklin and Dulaney high schools in Baltimore County and at John Carroll High School in Harford County read aloud the names of those killed in the Florida school shooting.

Dulaney students also chanted “Not one more.” Passersby honked their car horns in support.

As students returned to class after their walkout, Dulaney administrators handed students sheets of papers with contact information for their elected officials. About 600 papers were handed out.

Junior Olivia Summons said that she and her classmates have grown up with the fear of school shootings. She called on Congress to tighten restrictions on guns.

“We cannot let our fate be decided by politicians who have never known what it is like to go through a lockdown drill just days after 17 students had their lives taken, knowing that you could be next, and there’s nothing that your government wants to do about it,” Summons said, to cheers.

Abhinav Khushalani, 18, a Dulaney senior who helped organize the walkout, said it’s important for young people to make their voices heard and not grow cynical about politics.

Dulaney Principal Sam Wynkoop estimated that 700 to 800 of the school’s 1,800 students participated in the walkout.

“I couldn’t be more proud of them,” he said.

Students rallying outside Annapolis High received similar praise. Some faculty members applauded them as they chanted.

Students at Century High School in Carroll County gathered in the gym for a moment of silence.

About 20 students — many of them middle-schoolers — walked outside Springdale Preparatory School in New Windsor. One student said she was missing history class, but she felt she was part of history by joining in the demonstration.

Many students were specific about the measures they want to see lawmakers pass: stronger background checks, a ban on military-style weapons and an increase in the minimum age to purchase a firearm.

Franklin High School sophomore Andrew West said more school guidance counselors and social workers are needed to help students suffering from mental illness, but it was guns in the hands of disturbed individuals that killed people.

The national event came a week after hundreds of Baltimore students left school to march to City Hall to call for an end to gun violence in schools and on the city’s streets.

Many of the Baltimore students who participated in the Wednesday walkout said their action was not only about remembering the Parkland victims — or the victims of Columbine, Virginia Tech or Sandy Hook.

One young woman carried a sign that asked, “Why does it take 17 to see 343?” — a reference to the numbers of people killed in the Parkland shootings and in Baltimore last year. Among them was 19-year-old Jonathan Tobash, a recent graduate of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.

At Excel Academy in West Baltimore, the walkout was as much about the seven Excel students killed in Baltimore in the last two school years as it was about the Parkland victims.

Bundled up and bracing against a bitterly cold wind in the shadow of their squat high school, they spoke the names of the school’s departed one by one.

“I felt that it was important that our students have their voice heard, especially as it relates to gun violence, because oftentimes our students feel that their voices are not heard within the larger community,” Excel Principal Tammatha Woodhouse said. “It was important that they got to participate and feel that folks are listening.”

The Baltimore school district has largely supported the student-led efforts. Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said the city’s students, many of whom have been personally impacted by gun violence, have important messages to add to the national conversation.

The district said students who rallied peacefully would not be disciplined, though officials encouraged schools to create a designated space within their buildings for the protests.

“The concept of peaceful protest is ingrained in our country’s history and our rights as citizens,” Santelises said at a school board meeting Tuesday.

A Baltimore County Public Schools spokesman said there would be no consequences for students who participated. The county experienced a school shooting in 2012, when a student at Perry Hall High School opened fire in the cafeteria on the first day of classes and critically injured a classmate. A school counselor grabbed the shooter, who was arrested and taken into custody.

The student leaders in the county who organized the walkout said the victims of the Florida shootings were foremost on their minds.

Franklin High School Principal Patrick McCusker said he had “never seen such a coordinated social movement by students” in his 18 years as a principal in the county.

School administrators in Harford County Public Schools warned students that they would not be allowed to participate, and said any who did could face disciplinary action.

The ACLU of Maryland sent a letter this week to the Harford school system, warning administrators that they can not punish students more harshly for taking part in a “politically motivated” event.

The debate did not stop a group of Havre de Grace High School students, some holding signs, from walking out, accompanied by a few staff members. About 50 to 60 students filed out of the school, some carrying signs with slogans such as “17 min 4 17 lives.”

The students formed a circle and held hands for a few moments of silence. They then returned to school. Police were on hand, but there were no issues and no conflicts.

Gov. Larry Hogan said Wednesday that he supported the students’ efforts to raise awareness of gun violence.

“I think it’s great that kids are very passionate about the issue and that they’re getting out there and letting their voices be heard. I think a lot of people are paying attention,” he told The Baltimore Sun. “I support their right to be able to protest and I think it’s a good thing.”

Students said it was up to them to fix a problem that adults have let fester.

“People think because we are adolescents, our voices don’t matter,” said Dulaney senior Dorrie Gaeng. “We wanted to come out here today and show you that we’re not going to accept that.”

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Kevin Rector, Pam Wood, Liz Bowie, Rachael Pacella, Erika Butler, Catalina Righter, Phil Davis, Kate Magill, Libby Solomon, Emily Chappell, Kate Elizabeth Queram, Wendi Winters, Thalia Juarez, and David Anderson contributed to this article.

trichman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/TaliRichman

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
77°