At least 2,000 McLennan County students joined tens of thousands of others nationwide in a 10 a.m. walkout Wednesday to demand change and more protection from gun violence in schools.
While other demonstrations included spirited chants and signs protesting a lack of gun control, students at Midway High School, Reicher Catholic High School, multiple Waco Independent School District schools and others not out for spring break focused on honoring the 17 people killed in the latest mass school shooting and on calling state and federal representatives.
Local students held photos of those killed Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and marched silently or linked arms for a moment of silence. Some took pictures of their shoes, similar to empty shoes left in front of the White House on Tuesday to represent other children killed by gun violence.
Officials did not report any discipline issues, and Waco ISD did not issue unexcused absences for students who participated in the 17-minute demonstrations on school grounds despite warnings that it would.
“A large misconception about this walkout was that this is just hardcore, left liberals trying to ban guns and take away our Second Amendment,” said Avi Patel, a Midway senior and student council president. “That’s not what we’re trying to do. … The goal was to end gun violence and promote gun safety.”
Enough is enough. Enough guns, enough death, Waco High senior Alyssa Riggs wrote to the Tribune-Herald after the walkout.
A group of Waco High students plan to meet Thursday to discuss the issues addressed in Wednesday’s demonstrations and to write to lawmakers, Riggs wrote.
“To stop violence, we must first become educated about the problem,” she wrote. “We need to learn what causes violence. We need to maximize gun restrictions, while also creating more rigorous programs to help students prepare for situations like this.”
About 450 people walked out of Waco High, Riggs said. Every Waco ISD middle school had some kind of demonstration tied to the movement, district spokesperson Kyle DeBeer said.
From 10 students at Indian Spring Middle School to 350 at Tennyson Middle School, more than 1,100 Waco ISD students took a stand Wednesday, DeBeer said. The most organized event was at Tennyson, while the other events were more spontaneous, prompted by local and national news coverage, he said.
University High students also held an 8 a.m. balloon release for Parkland victims, Principal Ricky Edison said. Then at 10 a.m. about 200 walked out, DeBeer said.
“I was at the Tennyson one, and it was very smooth,” DeBeer said. “It was pretty representative of all the events, with a serious and somber tone. Students were reflective.”
ATLAS Academy eighth-graders Abigail Zimmerman, 13, and Lily Coffman, 12, encouraged Tennyson students to perform at least 17 acts of kindness in honor the people killed in Parkland. Zimmerman told her classmates they have the opportunity to carry on the voice of the 17 who died and inspire change.
“If everybody does 17 acts of kindness, all 300-400 of us do 17 acts of kindness, there’s just so much that’s going to spread and hopefully influence others to see we can overcome the terrible things that happen and that we can spark change,” Coffman said.
Administrators have been supportive of the student-driven events, said Matt Rambo, the assistant principal for ATLAS Academy. English teachers are linking the event into lessons in class, including writing assignments about what it takes to be a good citizen, Rambo said.
“It’s heartening to see the seriousness for which the students took their participation in these activities and seeing, regardless of the issue, students engaging in civic debate,” DeBeer said.
Across town, seven Midway High School students leading their demonstration trickled out a little before 10 a.m. with a megaphone and a plan of action.
They started with a moment of silence then read the names of the 17 people killed in Parkland to about 385 fellow students who walked out and gathered in front of the school’s flagpoles.
Then the group walked as many as they could through the voter registration process and taught them how to call state and federal officials to voice their concerns.
Media was not allowed on the campus for interviews until after the demonstration ended.
Organizers pushed back against critics, who said a walkout wouldn’t change anything or thought the demonstration was an excuse to skip class.
“What I say to that is the students, this time, are determined and resilient,” sophomore Katie Fraley said. “This is not something we’re going to let fade away.”
Students also pushed back against the notion they had no right to leave a classroom during a school day, demand improvements to gun purchasing loopholes, stronger background checks and age restrictions, more access to mental health resources and support, and an assault rifle ban.
“Those 17 minutes are being taken out of announcement times. Those announcements aren’t instructional time. It’s a specific set time in our class, in our school day, set aside to learn about Midway news,” said Patel. “We took those minutes and we applied them here for national news, national change. If anything, I feel this was a more impactful, powerful way to spend our 15 minutes that we do every single day.”
As Patel and others helped students track down phone numbers for state and federal officials, at least one student made a call to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s office, demanding action, he said.
The Tribune-Herald called state representatives after the walkout, but only two responded Wednesday afternoon.
State Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson said his offices had not received any calls from students immediately after the demonstration, but that they might after students digest Wednesday’s demonstrations.
But the state does not need to pass another law to keep schools safe from active shooters, Anderson said.
“The main problem is trying to get rid of the gun-free zones,” Anderson said. “These demented people always target where they know they’re not going to be confronted.”
Texas state law already gives districts the authority to allow specific employees or board members to carry firearms in school, and more recently, the state has passed laws allowing concealed carry of firearms at public universities and community colleges.
“That’s kind of where we are across the state currently, but these people are obviously mentally unbalanced,” Anderson said of people who carry out mass shootings at schools. “The shooting in Florida was just a cataclysmic failure of government at every single level. Another law, or two, or three wouldn’t have made a difference in that. Laws don’t necessarily solve the problem. … It’s more of a case of letting these people know there’s a defensive posture at these schools to protect these kiddos.”
The Texas Association of School Boards found that 172 of the state’s 1,023 independent school districts allow an employee or board member to carry a firearm on campus, according to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. About 24 percent of districts use school resource officers, and another 15 percent rely on their own police department.
State Sen. Brian Birdwell’s spokesman Ben Stratmann said Birdwell is prepared to hear students’ concerns but had not received any student calls on the issue Wednesday.
State Rep. Kyle Kacal did not return a request for comment by Wednesday afternoon.
At the national level, the same day as the protest, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the STOP School Violence Act of 2018. The legislation will authorize state-based grants to support evidence-based violence prevention programs, according to a statement released by the White House.
“Identifying the early signs of violent behavior is a vital part of protecting our schools from potential threats,” U.S. Rep. Bill Flores wrote in a statement Wednesday. “The STOP School Violence Act provides critical resources to our schools to train students, teachers, administrators and law enforcement to recognize and respond to the early warning signs of school violence.”
Beyond demanding more safety from gun violence at schools nationwide, Midway students plan to start a “Cool to be Kind Club” and a “Dine with Us” program to reach out to students who have no one to sit with at lunch and to prevent bullying while making the school friendlier and more inclusive, Patel said.
“People really need to understand that in this movement, it is the students becoming the leaders because the leaders are acting like children,” Fraley said. “We are taking this by the reins and making it into a brighter future and a brighter opportunity for a place we can grow up feeling safe and also know that we’re heard.”
Midway High has more than 2,000 students, and those who did not participate used the 17 minutes for a moment of silence in class and filled out a campus safety survey.
All of the students and faculty at Reicher Catholic High School marched around their football field as 17 students held the photos of each person killed at Parkland. Reicher’s demonstration came at about 11:30, an hour and a half after the majority of school demonstrations.
“We’re representing that this could have happened at our school and that this can still happen at our school if there’s not stricter laws made,” student council Vice President Lina Lopez said. “We are marching so that no parent has to send their child to school scared that they won’t come back at the end of the day and so that no teacher has to risk their lives for all of their students.”
Walkouts were also expected at Eagle Christian Academy, Connally High School, Harmony School of Innovation, Vanguard College Preparatory School and others.
Two more national demonstrations prompted by the Parkland shooting are planned through April 20, according to the Associated Press.
Wacoans will trek to Heritage Square at 3 p.m. March 24 for a March For Our Lives rally, organized by some of the same Midway students. Another national demonstration will happen April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting that left more than 20 dead in Colorado. It’s unclear whether a local event is planned for April.