Metro Atlanta students poured out of classrooms Wednesday to stand with students from around the nation for 17 minutes.
They held hands, wiped away tears, and called legislators to ask for tighter gun controls -- reforms they believe would prevent school shootings such as the Florida massacre one month ago and sparked a nationwide youth movement.
Much of the walkout activity in Georgia took place in metro Atlanta, but students in other parts of the state also participated.
Student-led walkouts in Atlanta and DeKalb were supported by school leaders, while students in Cobb and Gwinnett have been told they will be punished.
“They are shutting down students who want to stand up and be civically responsible and be a leader for this movement. They basically said that's irrelevant to you," said Katie Friedman, a recent graduate of Walton High School in Cobb County, who protested outside the school in support of her younger brother there, a sophomore.
The Cobb County School District angered some parents with its stern warning days ahead of the walkout. “Students who choose to disrupt the normal operation of a school may be subject to consequences,” a message displayed prominently on the district website said.
As the walkout ended, Cobb came under fire for how it handled the event.
Fallon McClure, an attorney in Cobb County who volunteered to help monitor any problems, said she spoke to a student and parents at Lassiter High School. They reported that teachers and administrators discouraged students from leaving the building.
Teachers also locked their classroom doors from the inside, she said, resulting in an intimidating atmosphere that kept some students from participating, though an estimated 30 Lassiter students did leave for the walkout.
In an email, Cobb spokesman John Stafford said no students were prevented from leaving the building. He added that the locks on classroom doors don’t prevent exiting, only entering.
Cobb leans Republican, and students and parents complained for weeks before the event about the ambiguous and quickly changing penalties that students were told they could receive.
At Walton High School, student organizers kept a tally of participants who walked out onto the football field. They said more than 260 students joined the walkout, despite concerns and a lack of clarity about how they might be punished.
“With every act of civil disobedience, you know that there’s going to be pushback,” said Lily Lefter, a 17-year-old Walton 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.”
The mood couldn’t have been more different in the Democratic stronghold of the city of Atlanta.
"Good for them. I am glad you had the opportunity to express your opinion," said Atlanta Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, who joined students at Inman Middle School.
"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.”
Meanwhile, in Fulton County, students posted a video on Twitter that shows a howl of protest as a grown-up, possibly a teacher, silences a pair of girls giving a speech suggesting the current interpretation of the 2nd Amendment is anachronistic.
The principal later wrote a message to parents that said the girls had gone “off-script” from the approved walkout plan. The school wanted them to stay “on message” — memorializing rather than politicizing the Parkland victims, with a message of unity and safety — and asked them to step down from the picnic table that had served as their soapbox. With 2,000 students of varying opinions, the principal wrote, the school couldn’t take sides in a political fight.
In a nation where attendance of the president’s well-documented inauguration was the basis for a factual dispute, the number of students who walked out of buildings on secured campuses across the nation will be all but impossible to accurately tally.
So Kaplan, the testing company, did a poll: 416 high school students from across the United States who took their SAT were polled by email Monday and Tuesday. A majority, 55 percent, said they planned to walk out, with 46 percent of the protesters vowing to participate even if it resulted in penalties from the colleges they hoped to attend.
At Gwinnett’s Norcross High School, not all students even knew about the event. Maya Smith, a 16-year-old junior, was sitting in her third-period yearbook class during the walkout, which she learned about for the first time Wednesday.
She said their teacher sent two students with cameras to document the event. Smith said she saw about 75 students participating through the classroom window.
“I didn’t want to get punishment for it,” Smith said, adding that she had heard of administrators threatening in-school suspension or write-ups for attending.
She didn’t think that was right.
“People should have a right to voice their own opinion without being punished,” Smith said.
Kennesaw State University student Katie Jordan likened the protests to a contemporary political awakening not unlike the Baby Boomers’ outrage over the Vietnam War.
Students have been witnesses to mass shootings for far too long, she said. “And the kids who have lived through this are finally coming of age and putting a stop to it.”
-- Ben Brasch, Mitchell Northam , Arlinda Broady, Amanda C. Coyne, Becca J.C. Godwin, Greg Bluestein and Marlon A. Walker contributed to this article.
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