WASHINGTON – With the cameras gone from Pennsylvania Avenue and the throngs of protesters who marched on Washington back home, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have a new challenge to confront.
After spending the past five weeks grieving classmates lost in a gunman’s attack at their school and launching a national movement against gun violence, thousands of Parkland teenagers will return to something resembling normal. After spring break this week, classes will resume and the crush of media that followed their every step is likely to disperse to chase the next big story.
But the students didn’t spend the weekend lobbying Congress and leading a huge crowd — estimates range from 200,000 to 1.3 million — only to go home and quietly move on. Throughout the weekend, they made it clear in interviews that they have ideas on how to stop gun violence, and that they’ve only started.
“Marjory Stoneman Douglas kids are the ones who started this. But we’re not going to be the ones who finish it. We have so many people who are with us,” said senior Emma Gonzalez, who’s become something of a political icon since the Feb. 14 attack at her school.
Opinions on what should be done with gun laws — and how — vary widely, even among students and Parkland families, and many have started their own organizations to address gun violence and school shootings. Ryan Deitsch, one of the 18 students behind March for Our Lives, said the well-funded organization plans to spend its resources on voter outreach and messaging.
“We need to make sure everybody registers, preregisters and shows up at the polls, because our youth in this country don’t vote,” he said. “They’ve been fear-mongered and basically fooled into not voting. And we’re tired of this BS.”
Deitsch said he and his friends have connected with students in other parts of the country. Two weeks after the attack, they invited students from Chicago to Gonzalez’s house to talk to them about their own experience with shootings. On Thursday, they visited students at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Washington, two of whose classmates have been killed in the past year in off-campus shootings.
“We want to further our cause and make sure that everybody who wants the platform to speak, who has something important to say about this, that they get that chance,” Deitsch said shortly before Saturday’s rally began. “We have kids from Chicago here. We have kids from Maryland. We have kids from Virginia.”
Their organization, which as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit can spend money politically, had received at least $5.4 million in donations before the march. On “Face the Nation” Sunday, the students said they plan to focus on the coming midterm elections but wouldn’t endorse candidates.
For students like Deitsch and Gonzalez, returning to the life they knew before the shootings would probably be impossible. Their faces are now internationally recognized.
But there are thousands of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and their futures and plans crisscross and diverge in many directions. Many are still planning for prom and applying to college. They may be activists with a heavy burden, but they’re still teenagers.
In the days leading up to the march, senior Aly Sheehy, 18, said that what she had been most excited about was the prospect of spending a few days on a trip with her friends. Under ordinary circumstances, Friday — which many Parkland students spent lobbying lawmakers — would have been the start of spring break.
“I was so excited to spend this amount of time with my friends and just hanging out with each other and just not having any obligations to do because it’s also our spring break,” she said Saturday morning at a hotel in Arlington, Va.
Since the shooting, the simple act of getting up in the morning and going to class has become a challenge, Sheehy said. “Now, I don’t feel safe going to school,” she said. “I don’t feel comfortable going, and it’s something like every day I kind of have to drag myself.”
On the morning before the March for Our Lives, the Parkland students were already thinking about their next steps.
Sophomore Nicolas Fraser, 16, wore a Gun Safety Voter shirt — “Future voter,” he said — as he ate breakfast at the hotel alongside his friend Ashley Baez, 15, who was still recovering from being shot in the leg.
“It’s definitely bigger than what we thought it would be,” Fraser said, referring to how quickly the #NeverAgain movement had grown. “Democracy, it’s about the people, so the government won’t be able to hold out [on gun control] much longer, especially when kids are able to vote.”