Howard student walkouts 'start the conversation' to end gun violence

Hundreds of students in Howard County staged walkouts Wednesday morning as part of a national protest against gun violence and a way to honor the lives of 17 teenagers and adults killed last month in a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

At River Hill High School in Clarksville, students streamed out the front doors to a roundabout near the parking lot. At Centennial High School in Ellicott City, they marched to the football field. Down the street at Burleigh Manor Middle School, they tromped around the building. At 34 schools in Howard County, they walked, joining thousands throughout the state and the country.

“For us, it’s about letting students get their feelings out,” said Matthew Sorak, a student organizer at Centennial High School. “A lot of people have extremely strong feelings about this, because we feel unsafe. We’re just giving students a chance to demonstrate that we want change.”

For current high school students, the threat of a school shooting is an innate part of daily life. They’ve grown up participating in lockdown drills and watching news reports of kids their age — or younger — being shot inside classrooms. But the Parkland shooting felt different, largely due to the outspoken response from surviving students there who immediately began clamoring for stricter gun control laws, said Vyom Iyer, a 16-year-old junior and one of four student organizers at River Hill High School.

“It was a lot about the response we saw from the Parkland students. It was very empowering,” she said. “After this shooting, I read the names of the victims. I’d never read the names before and it made it more real to me. They were all my age and I just started crying. At this point, after this shooting, I was just fed up. It was the absolute last straw.”

After leaving class, the River Hill students stood silently while organizers read the names of each of the 17 people who died during the Stoneman Douglas shooting. The walkout honored their lives, but was also a call to prevent future casualties at places like River Hill, said Chris Fazzari, 16, another student organizer.

“River Hill is a very high-intensity environment, which is very damaging to a lot of people. I know there are people who do not feel connected, feel ostracized, feel there’s too much stress and feel they can’t take it,” he said. “So this is what I do about that — I start the conversation that this is a problem. We need to make it so that kids pick up the phone to call a therapist instead of picking up a firearm.”

Karen Sheplee made signs to support the students at River Hill High School for the morning walkouts, staged under azure skies and in a brisk late winter wind. Sheplee’s granddaughter is a freshman at River Hill, but Sheplee was unsure if she would leave class to participate in the walkout.

But the grandmother from Columbia decided she would be there either way.

“After this last shooting, I’ve become an activist now, and not only financially — I’m giving to these organizations — but I want to give my time, too,” she said. “That’s why. But I’m going to hang back, I’m going to be a spectator.”

Sheplee was asked to leave shortly after the march began, as the event was billed as “students only” by administrators. But one of her placards — reading “Make our schools a safehouse” — got to stay, after a student asked to borrow it for the walk.

Organizers said they estimated at least 400 students at the 1,200-student school took part in Wednesday’s activities. At Atholton High School in Columbia, more than 600 students huddled against the cold on the football field. Most wore black (one of the school’s colors), accessorized with orange ribbon pins, handmade by students during lunch periods and after school.

Participants observed 17 minutes of silence, each punctuated with the name of one of the Stoneman Douglas victims, and heard student organizers plead for nonpartisan action to prevent future shootings. Hearing the Parkland students speak about their experience was inspiring, but so was the reaction to their comments, said Joshua Kim, a student organizer at Atholton and president of the school’s Young Dems club.

“After Parkland, we saw students speak up and have that protest outside their school, and that moment really catapulted all these other movements around the country. This time, it just feels different,” said Kim, 17. “We’ve had students that really felt affected by the fact that this could really be one of us. Schools are supposed to be a place where we go to learn things. They’re supposed to be sanctuaries for learning.”

At Centennial, Sorak, a junior, said he estimated approximately 350 students flocked to the football field at 10 a.m. to protest and hear from student organizer, 12th grader Sophie Lovering. Sorak said Lovering encouraged students to use today’s protest as a way to spark conversations about gun control in the community and to continue to take action.

After school on Wednesday, business ran as usual at Centennial as buses and parents picked up students from the place where hours earlier, Sorak and his classmates had protested. They spoke outside of the school as reporters were barred from covering the morning walkouts.

“We were honoring the 17 people from Parkland as well as standing up for gun control because a lot of students are pissed off and we want that to be clear to congressman and administrators that have the power to change,” said senior Gillian Rossbach, 17. “It felt really nice to be able to make a statement and to be able to be a part of it somehow.”

Junior Abby Zoller-Gritz, 17, said she was driven to protest out of the anger and fear she and friends feel, wondering if they’ll safely make it home from school each day. She called today’s protest “amazing” and said she plans to attend the March 24 March for Our Lives protest in Washington, D.C. as well.

“As Americans we don’t have the idea if our kids are going to come back out safe and so I felt that I needed to stand up and say, ‘Hey I’m not okay with not knowing if I can come back out of the school building at the end of the day.’”

Centennial students are leading some of the county’s charge to attend the March for Our Lives. Students from the school have organized buses to take residents to the march, at $16 a seat. Sorak, who’s helping spearhead the effort, said so far they’ve registered 75 people, but are expecting many more.

There were no immediate reports of disruptions at any walkouts in Howard County.

The Howard County Public School System last month sent administrators a detailed list of guidelines for handling potential walkouts, noting that students who participate will not be punished and that teachers should “create a safe environment” for students who walk.

The school system prohibited adults, community members or reporters from coming on school property during Wednesday’s walkouts, and police monitored activities at several schools. Reporters with the Howard County Times attempted to attend several walkouts but were asked to leave by school administrators.

That policy was largely due to safety and security concerns, according to Brian Bassett, a spokesman for the school system.

“We have large number of students who can’t be photographed, can’t be taped, and this was an event on school property during the school day, so we’ve got to go through a do-not-photograph list,” he said. “It’s a little different when it’s on school property during the day. The expectations of the families are a little bit different, so we need to be respectful of that.”

The school system also prohibited reporters from coming on school property to cover the walkouts and there were police monitoring activities at several schools. But administrators have not kept tabs on students’ plans, Bassett said.

“We don’t know where they’re occurring and we’re not asking students to notify us,” he said. “If they occur, sort of organically, they will, but at this point we’re not documenting where they may or may not be happening.”

Staff writer Kate Magill contributed to this report.

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