At Excel Academy in Baltimore, national walkout against gun violence hits close to home

Students at Excel Academy in West Baltimore haven’t experienced a school shooting, but have lost seven schoolmates to street gun violence in the last year and a half, and can share stories going back decades about the outsize role guns have played in their lives and the impact it has had on them. (Ulysses Muñoz, Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun video)

When dozens of students and teachers exited Excel Academy on Wednesday morning as part of the nationwide “walkout” against gun violence, it was in honor of the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida last month, but also the seven Excel students killed by gun violence in Baltimore since last year, they said.

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


They also ticked off the names of others who have lost their lives in and around Baltimore in recent years, to gun violence on the street but also during interactions with law enforcement.

“We know that we are experiencing our own violence right here in Baltimore,” teacher Shelly Higgins said, noting nearly 350 people were killed in the city last year. “I’m pretty sure a lot of you guys know a lot of those people.”

Many of the students nodded as they buried their faces in scarves and collars against the cold.

The event was one of many like it Wednesday, when thousands of students in Maryland and across the country walked out of their schools as part of the national “#Enough National School Walkout” organized by students who survived the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland.

It was also unique, reflecting the extremely personal relationship many Excel students have with gun violence. Several students said that, because of those connections, the national walkout made them feel like people were listening to Baltimore, to them.

“It makes me feel like people have some type of compassion, that people care and people are willing to come out and do something about it instead of just sitting around talking about it, complaining,” said Kyra Finney, an 18-year-old Excel senior, who said she has lost several childhood friends and others in her life to gun violence. “They’re actually taking a stand and doing something.”

“It makes me feel like everybody wants a change, not just [those] here in Baltimore,” said Dajona Bass, also an 18-year-old senior, whose father was killed when she was six months old.

“It was positive. It showed leadership,” Finney said. “It showed that we care.”

Excel Principal Tammatha Woodhouse, a strong advocate for her students who has led them through the violence of the past two school years, encouraged her students to take part in the walkout.

“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,” Woodhouse said. “I felt it was important that they got to participate and feel that folks are listening.”

Woodhouse said she is looking for more opportunities to boost her students’ voices as well — including by making connections with school officials at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

“One of the things that we’ve been exploring here at Excel Academy is trying to figure out how our kids can connect with the Parkland students, so that they can understand that they stand united in this fight,” Woodhouse said. “While they come from very different parts of the world, they are so much alike, because their pain is the same.”