Cobb students say they must walk out of Walton despite discipline

Natalie Carlomagno plans to get up from her desk at 10 a.m. today, leave her Advanced Placement language class, and walk out of Walton High School.

The 15-year-old sophomore will join students from across Cobb County and the nation who are briefly leaving school to protest gun violence and call for tighter gun laws.

Unlike their peers in Atlanta and DeKalb, Cobb participants have been warned they will be punished.

“There’s been an incredible pushback. It’s been a lot more difficult for us to organize this and plan it, not only because our school is unsupportive of it, but we’ve had such a lack of information about what’s going on,” said Natalie.

Cobb officials, who have expressed concern about safety and classroom disruptions, declined to publicly specify what that discipline will be. Students have heard it could vary from school to school or depend on if they’ve had prior offenses.

The vague and vacillating warnings prompted walkout organizers at nearby Pope High School to hold a Tuesday press conference, during which they said that any punishment should be fair and uniform. Students also fear that the ambiguous signals will deter participation, and said teachers who support them have been silenced by administrators.

For some high-achieving students, many of whom have the kind of squeaky clean records sought by college admissions officers, the threats sting and scare but have done little to diminish their convictions.

“This is about us contributing to the national conversation on nonpartisan, common-sense gun laws, because it’s important enough to us that we’re willing to face that unexcused absence or that Saturday school or whatever it may be. Because this isn’t about defying our teachers this is about making sure that no one else has to die for the cause,” said Lily Lefter, a 17-year-old Walton junior.

She and other Walton organizers said they respect their teachers and school administrators, and that's why the must walk out. No teacher or student should have to worry about being shot or map out how they would escape if a gunman attacked the school, they said.

“It’s really heartbreaking when people are saying, ‘Oh, you’re just trying to get out of school’ or ‘You’re just rebellious teenagers who are trying to go against authority,’” said Madeleine Deisen, a 17-year-old senior. “This is not something that I’ve been used to. I’ve never been in our principal’s office, ever. I’ve shaken my principal’s hand at awards night.”

“The reason we are doing this is because we love our education so much. We want to be able to focus on reading literature, on playing the violin, on learning calculus. We don’t want to be sitting in those classrooms and worried about what would happen,” she added. “We are doing this because we want the safety to learn.”

Walton students see similarities between their school in eastern Cobb County and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where a former student killed 17 people one month ago. Both are well-regarded public high schools, brimming with talented, ambitious students and located in affluent suburbs.

U.S. News & World Report ranked Walton the No. 5 high school in Georgia. Its enrollment last fall was 2,691 students. More than 2,000 signed up for the walkout, though organizers don’t know how many will end up joining them.

The high school organized an alternative event, dubbed a “memorial activity,” to take place before school starts today. It’s a chance to express condolences for the lives lost in the Florida school shooting. That massacre, carried out by a 19-year-old who legally purchased an AR-15, sparked this nationwide youth movement for stricter gun laws.

Walton students organizing the 10 a.m. demonstration said they're happy for the chance to pay their respects, but said the school-sanctioned event does not replace the walkout. The 17-minute walkout, they said, is about the symbolic act of standing up at the same time with other students across the country on behalf of those killed in Florida.

More than 3,100 walkouts have been registered across the country, according to a tally by the youth-arm of the Women’s March, which is helping to organize the event.

Walton organizers said the walkout is pointed and purposeful, both civil and disobedient.

They will encourage classmates to call their elected representatives to demand gun-law reforms. They’ll tell students to register to vote. They’ll pause for a moment of silence for Florida victims.

When the walkout is over, they will continue to march, to advocate, to contact legislators.

The walkout organizers called for a ban on bump stocks, devices that allow guns to fire like automatic weapons. They want universal background checks and to raise the minimum age for gun-buyers.

“We are trying to work together to create a safer nation. We aren’t trying to take away all your guns,” said Anisa Handa, a 16-year-old Walton junior.

She thinks too much of the focus has been on an “either/or” solution to gun violence. Some people opposed to stricter gun laws have called for more mental health services or urged students to make 17 new friends instead of walking out for 17 minutes.

Anisa wonders: Why can’t the answer be all of the above?