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.)

Hundreds of metro Atlanta students join gun-violence walkouts

For 17 minutes, students around metro Atlanta left their classrooms Wednesday to stand together or kneel or wipe away tears.

They left their books and picked up their phones to call legislators to demand gun-control changes.

They locked arms.

They walked out.

The movement, sparked by the Parkland, Fla. school shooting one month ago that killed 17 people, spread across the nation. Much of the activity in Georgia centered in metro Atlanta but there was also participation around the state.

Young organizers planned more than 3,100 walkouts nationwide in a show of strength and solidarity that many of their parents and longtime gun-reform activists found inspiring. Some of their school administrators and principals, not so much.

District leaders in Atlanta and DeKalb supported the protests as long as they were peaceful. Students in Cobb and Gwinnett have been told they will be disciplined for walking out and are waiting to find out what the penalty will be.

Parents and civil rights groups said they’ll challenge any discipline they deem unfair or excessive.

In Cobb, students said unclear and contradictory threats of punishment deterred some students.

“With every act of civil disobedience, you know that there’s going to be pushback,” said Lily Lefter, a 17-year-old Walton High School junior who helped organize the walkout. “It was very peaceful, it went as planned and again we are ready to face anything because it was bigger than any single consequence.”

More than 2,000 students at her high school, a top-ranked academic powerhouse brimming with ambitious, college-bound students, initially signed up for the walkout. But organizers were pleased when they counted 266 standing with them on the football field. That’s roughly 10 percent of the Walton enrollment.

When the protesters took out their phones at the same time to dial their elected representatives, organizers said they felt a surge of emotion and pride.

At nearby Pope High School, where students had voiced concerns the day before about vague warnings from administrators, an organizer said about 100 students walked out.

Gwinnett estimated 3,900 of the district’s 180,000 students took part.

Participation was far greater in districts that supported the walkout. Atlanta reported more than 16,000 of its 52,000 students joined demonstrations held in two dozen schools. DeKalb officials estimated numbers in the “thousands.”

Some students refused to walk out because they don’t agree with the call for stricter gun laws.

North Atlanta High School senior Jacqueline Flash said she felt a bit of pressure Wednesday morning, when she realized she was the only one of a dozen students in her first-period class who didn’t plan to walk out.

The 17-year-old, who learned to safely shoot guns about five years ago, remained inside.

Of course, she said, she doesn’t want to see shootings ever happen. But the school district “shouldn’t be just sponsoring one half of the conversation” in the gun debate.

School districts’ different approaches were evident in scenes outside the schools.

Several dozen parents and supporters gathered on sidewalks outside Walton High School, where officials barred visitors from coming onto the campus “for safety reasons.” The poster-toting group expressed disappointment with Cobb’s stance, waved to students who peered down from windows and cheered the teens as they returned to class after the walkout.

“They are going to have a hard enough time to find the courage as it is, but now (are) having to battle decisions about what are the consequences,” said Tina Strawn, parent of a Walton junior.

Fallon McClure, a lawyer in Cobb County, volunteered to help monitor the protests on behalf of students. She spoke to a Lassiter High School student and parents who reported that teachers and administrators stood at exit doors and discouraged students from leaving the building.

Teachers locked their classroom doors from the inside, McClure said. She said that created an intimidating atmosphere that kept some students from participating, though she said an estimated 30 Lassiter students did walk out.

Cobb spokesman John Stafford said in an email that no students were prevented from leaving the building. The locks on classroom doors don’t prevent exiting, only entering, he said.

Students at Fulton County’s Cambridge High School posted a video on Twitter that shows a howl of protest as a grown-up silences a pair of girls as they give a speech about the Second Amendment.

Principal Ed Spurka later said that happened after two students “decided to go off-script and begin advocating for gun control.”

“In our efforts to stay on message with student unity and school safety, the students were redirected and asked to step down from the table,” he wrote, in a letter to parents. “At Cambridge, our plan was in line with our district’s guidelines which stated the event should memorialize the victims of Parkland and not take political positions on political issues.”

Atlanta Public Schools embraced the walkout, calling it an appropriate educational opportunity in the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr. Superintendent Meria Carstarphen attended the walkout at Inman Middle School and even hugged a few students and took a selfie with them.

“Kids are saying that, by and large, they want to feel safe, they want to feel respected, and that, by and large, guns in schools make them feel uncomfortable,” she said. “What I think is important is to make opportunities available for students to express themselves in appropriate ways.”

Said Inman eighth-grader Anna Rachwalski: “We’re kids, and we see things in a simple way. We are simply expressing the problem and hoping people will listen and see that.”

DeKalb school officials also allowed students to take the lead on the demonstrations. At Lakeside High School, the name of a Parkland, Fla. victim was read aloud every minute for 17 minutes. More than 1,000 students, staff, parents and community leaders attended the event.

At the state Capitol, more than 100 students and demonstrators gathered to protest, and Democratic legislators walked out together from the chambers of the House and Senate.

Kids spoke out forcefully at Mundy’s Mill Middle School in Clayton County, where the principal said students were given time in social studies class to make their protest signs.

“The Second Amendment is up for debate again,” said sixth-grader Rebecca Bordeau. “No community should have to endure such a tragedy. Stoneman Douglas High Schoolers shouldn’t be mourning — they should be getting ready for prom and graduation filled with happy memories for the yearbook, not memorials.”

-- Staff writers Amanda C. Coyne, Marlon A. Walker, Mitchell Northam, Arlinda Broady, Becca J.G. Godwin, Greg Bluestein and Ben Brasch contributed to this article

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