Fed-up students poured out of schools around Minnesota at 10 a.m. Wednesday, joining the massive wave of nationwide protests led by teens demanding stricter gun laws after last month’s mass shooting at a Florida high school.
Hundreds demonstrated outside Harding High School in St. Paul, where Mayor Melvin Carter joined in chants of “books not bullets!” during one of the state’s largest observances of the #Enough National School Walkout.
In Minneapolis, around 80 North High School students trickled into the school’s courtyard and clasped hands while they observed a moment of silence and later recited the names of the 17 people killed in Parkland, Fla., marking the one-month anniversary of the shooting.
“Those were innocent lives,” said Lexe Khrystal, a North High senior who prayed quietly with her peers. “That could have been us easily.”
Across the metro, students abandoned their classrooms during coordinated 17-minute protests to raise awareness about the impact of gun violence and remember the 17 people slain at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The peaceful demonstrations ranged from solemn to lively, with students waving homemade signs and shouting into megaphones while standing in the cold.
At Harding, a P.A. announcement informed students that they “will NOT” be disciplined for walking out to participate in the protest. Moments later, students flooded en masse from the main entrance, led by a yellow banner depicting a bullet-ridden school zone sign, saying: “It’s easier to buy a gun than my education.”
Elbira Capetillo-Cortez decried what she views as lax gun legislation while carrying a sign with pictures of all 17 victims of the Parkland shooting. “The fact that it’s so easy to get a gun and not textbooks is proof we need to change something,” she said. She’s calling for more security in schools and additional background checks before gun permits are issued.
Terrionna Martin, a junior, chimed in: “We shouldn’t have to go to school living in fear.”
Carter and Superintendent Joe Gothard stood in solidarity with the kids, occasionally posing for selfies. Gothard told students he was proud of all the planning that went into the demonstration.
“It was incredible,” he said. “I learned that our students have a lot to say. We have to listen to them.”
But some students wanted more. Once the bell sounded and teachers began ushering people back inside, a group of about a dozen teens stayed behind, surrounding Gothard and Carter and demanding to know how a similar tragedy could be avoided in their community.
Carter assured them that even as minors, their voices mattered. “You got a news helicopter here. They’re listening to you,” he said. “We need you not to stop.”
Beauty Posey, a senior, stood beside Carter and spoke directly to a horde of TV cameras: “Stop what you’re doing and put money into these schools to make them safer,” she begged. “If y’all don’t do it now, in a couple years we’re gonna lose 17 other students.”
Harding Principal Doug Revsbeck estimated that half of the school — about 950 kids — chose to participate Wednesday. “It’s important that we empower our young people,” Revsbeck said. “It’s a learning experience. They’ll never forget the impact their voices had.”
Numb to violence
In north Minneapolis, an area plagued by gang shootings, students say they’ve become accustomed to gun violence. Until now, student activists who have long advocated for gun reform have struggled to gain attention from lawmakers.
“We’re kind of numb to the violence,” said organizer Azhae’la Hanson, a North High senior. “It’s very real for people in my community. Do we only acknowledge gun violence when multiple kids are murdered in school? Why don’t we acknowledge it when multiple kids and families are murdered at our doorsteps?”
For many students, it’s personal. Damon Brown, 17, and Tim Brown, 16, were gearing up for Wednesday’s rally when they got word that their cousin was fatally shot last weekend in Harvey, Ill. It was then, the brothers say, that they understood the harsh realities of gun violence.
“I can tell you from experience it hurts,” Damon Brown said, choking on his words. “It’s an issue everywhere, not just in schools. We North Siders are tired of losing close friends and family members. It drains you mentally, physically and it actually distracts you from learning.”
The brothers have joined the dozen North High students who will bus out to Washington, D.C., for the March For Our Lives rally on March 24. The protest demanding safer schools and tougher gun laws is expected to draw more than 500,000 people.
Meanwhile, Minnesota Senate GOP leaders this week showcased several proposals they are backing that they say address school safety, including measures to improve mental health programs and threat assessment.
The walkout elicited mixed reactions from observers, some of whom criticized the loss of instructional time and spoke in favor of gun rights.
About 10:10 a.m., police responded to an altercation at Southwest High School in Minneapolis. A male student waving a flag that possibly said “Make America Great Again” was assaulted by some of the several hundred protesters who assembled outside, according to Minneapolis police spokeswoman Sgt. Darcy Horn. The male student sustained minor injuries, Horn said, and the school resource officer is investigating the incident.
In the days preceding the event, school officials worked hard to strike a balance between not endorsing the protests while respecting students’ free speech rights. However, administrators made it clear that disciplinary action would be taken if students’ constitutional rights violate school district policies.
Several school districts, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, promised not to bar their students from participating but classified protest departures from school premises as an unexcused absence. Students at Minneapolis Public Schools were also told that they would be banned from Wednesday’s after-school activities if they left school grounds.
Minneapolis Superintendent Ed Graff stood with families gathered outside Hale Elementary in Minneapolis throughout their 17-minute event.
In Eden Prairie, a large crowd of students assembled outside Eden Prairie High School’s entrance No. 15, holding signs and chanting. “We had everyone set an alarm on their phones for 10 o’clock,” said Gabi Pittinger, 16, one of four students who led the walkout. She estimated that 600 students met outside the school under police watch. The rally ended with a minute of silence in honor of those lost and to minimize the distraction of all those returning to class, Pittinger said. Fellow student organizer Alexa Tessman said: “I am extremely proud of my fellow classmates. I have gained so much respect for every single one of them.”