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DeKalb school district support allows for seamless student protests, officials say

Seventeen minutes of silence.

At each one-minute interval, Lakeside High School senior Xavier Speight read aloud the name of someone whose life was cut short by a gunman a month ago today at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

More than 1,000 students, staff, parents and community leaders gathered in the FAB, a popular gathering spot in front of the school near the auditorium and parking lot to commemorate the one-month anniversary of a tragic South Florida school shooting.

A high school shooting in Florida led to a national student walkout that swept up students in Georgia. This video features footage from AJC reporters, AJC photographers, Atlanta students and administrators. (All footage used with permission.)

Principal Damian Bounds said a note sent to schools by Superintendent Steve Green allowed him to let students take the lead on a demonstration they already were planning, to be a listening ear and guide as students channeled their grief into something they hoped would be tangible.

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“They shared with me what their plans were, and we talked through it,” he said. “We let them do their thing. The students took this and ran with it. It couldn’t have happened without the support from the school district.”

The show of support reverberated through school leadership, allowing collaboration for peaceful and structured demonstrations even as some other school districts around metro Atlanta rebuffed students’ hopes to show their support as the country reeled from yet another school shooting.

Five Lakeside students, addressing the crowd after the moment of silence, said in a speech they read together that it was past time for their generation to speak up against gun violence that has made up so much of the news, invoking names such as Trayvon Martin, killed in Florida in 2012 by a neighborhood watch captain after being stopped on the way home from a convenience store.

“People our age don’t do enough to make a change,” said Caleb Torres, 18, a senior at Lakeside. “This is a fantastic chance for us to share our opinions and let our voice be heard.”

Student participant Ellen Gebreyohannes, 16, who was born in Ethiopia, said she was surprised students had access to guns. 

“I came from Africa to get an education,” she said. “We shouldn’t be afraid to go to school.”

At Arabia Mountain High School, Principal Rodney Swanson said he was approached by several students about holding a demonstration, but he wasn’t sure having his 1,400 students leave the school in protest was necessarily the safest or best way for them to vocalize their concerns on gun violence. 

“We came up with a collective decision with the students, faculty and staff here to make sure the students were supported,” he said.

Students observed a 17-second moment of silence about 10 a.m., Swanson said. Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity members manned a voter registration drive to get eligible students signed up to vote. Banners with the words “Arabia Mountain High School Supports You” were being signed by the students, to later be sent to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Swanson said social studies teachers also helped students prepare letters to send to their legislators, voicing their opinions on gun violence and myriad other concerns.

Arabia Mountain Senior Camille Jones said students need to use their voices to get the legislative change they want to see.

“All we really can do is use our voices,” she said. “We cannot make the change. By using our voices, we can reach the people (in Congress) who can.

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The AJC's Marlon A. Walker keeps you updated on the latest happenings in metro Atlanta K-12 news and DeKalb County Schools. You'll find more on myAJC.com, including these stories:

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