Mass shootings spur metro Atlanta students to plan school walkouts

James Stevens, a 15-year-old student at Centennial High School in Roswell, joined his mother at a gun control demonstration Wednesday at the Georgia State Capitol. He and other students are becoming more active in the gun-control debate in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. Vanessa McCray/AJC
James Stevens, a 15-year-old student at Centennial High School in Roswell, joined his mother at a gun control demonstration Wednesday at the Georgia State Capitol. He and other students are becoming more active in the gun-control debate in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. Vanessa McCray/AJC

Students across metro Atlanta plan to walk out of at least two dozen middle schools, high schools and universities next month as part of a national protest against gun violence.

The National School Walkout is one of three high-profile demonstrations that students around the country are joining as they call for gun law changes after last week's school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

Student activists are recruiting classmates to leave class at 10 a.m. March 14 for 17 minutes, one minute for each victim killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

It’s unclear how many local students will end up walking out, though the number of area students making plans for their schools has grown in the past few days.

An online list of planned walkouts now includes middle and high schools in Alpharetta, Atlanta, Chamblee, Decatur, Doraville, Douglasville, Johns Creek, Kennesaw, Marietta, Milton, Roswell, Sandy Springs, Smyrna, and Snellville, among other places.

Fiona Jones, a 14-year-old freshman at North Atlanta High School, is urging classmates to walk out. “It’s caused a lot of fear,” she said of the Florida shooting, “and I think people are tired of being afraid, and they aren’t going to let it happen again.”

While some school districts have not announced how they will respond to potential walkouts, others indicated a willingness to work with the young demonstrators.

Atlanta Public Schools wants to make sure any demonstrations take place in a safe, “meaningful” way, said Erica Long, special assistant to the superintendent.

“This is a national conversation around keeping our schools and neighborhoods safe, and as our students feel the need to participate in that we want to be supportive. We are encouraging principals and students to work together to plan what their demonstration will look like,” she said.

Students will not be disciplined if their actions are approved in advance. The district will prepare instructional materials about public policy to add an educational element. Once the demonstration is over, students will be expected to resume normal school routines, Long said.

DeKalb Superintendent Steve Green told parents in a letter this week that the district will allow students "to peacefully protest" but won't tolerate disruptive or unsafe behavior.

“It can be a teachable moment where students can demonstrate their First Amendment right to be heard, knowing there are natural consequences to civil disobedience,” he wrote.

Several student-organized demonstrations already took place this week in Gwinnett County Public Schools, where principals wrote in a letter to parents that they will work with students “to provide meaningful opportunities for them to honor the victims from Florida and voice their concerns.”

Those could include meeting in a safe place with supervision, organizing events outside of the school day, and a letter-writing campaign to legislators, the letter suggested: “As a school, we are planning on preserving instructional time and operating as normal on these days. That said, we do have concerns about students participating in a walkout or other activities that create a disruption at school or result in a loss of instructional time. Any student engaging in activities that create a class or school disruption may face disciplinary action.”

The March 14 walkout is being coordinated by the youth arm of the Women’s March, the 2017 protest in Washington and other cities.

Alyssa Greenhouse, a 23-year-old Emory University School of Medicine student, is planning an Emory walkout.

She would like to see a ban of assault-style weapons, stronger background checks and restrictions that keep firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill. She views gun reform as a public health issue akin to seat belt requirements and smoking bans.

Ten days after the walkout, students will gather in Washington, D.C., Atlanta and in cities around the nation for the “March for Our Lives,” a separate event spearheaded by Parkland, Fla., students who survived the recent massacre.

“Thankfully, they are young enough where they are not totally discouraged with American politics. I think they absolutely believe that change is possible, and those are the only people who have ever created movement in the past,” Greenhouse said.

Mallory Harris, a UGA senior from Dunwoody who will rally with other students March 24 in Athens, sees this post-Parkland moment as a possible watershed moment in the gun debate because, "now you have survivors saying: No, to respect us and to respect the memories of our friends we are demanding that you have those conversations."

Many parents and longtime activists hope these youthful voices will be able to accomplish what they have not.

“I remember when Columbine happened, and then I remember when Sandy Hook happened and how deeply affected I was emotionally,” said Tamara Stevens, a Roswell mother whose son James missed school Wednesday to attend a gun-control rally at the Georgia State Capitol. “I really thought that was going to be the turning point, but the difference is you didn’t have first- and second-graders and third-graders on camera speaking out about it.”

She and other moms have talked about forming “a protective circle” around any students who walk out of Centennial High School, where James is a 15-year-old freshman.

James called the advocacy of Florida students “inspiring.”

“I think every school should protest like that,” he said.

-- Staff writer Arlinda Smith Broady contributed to this article.

National student gun-violence protests

March 14: National School Walkout

At 10 a.m., students will stage walkouts and leave class for 17 minutes, to signify the 17 people killed in the Parkland, Fla. school shooting. The event is spearheaded by the youth-arm of the Women’s March.

March 24: March for Our Lives

Student activists and others will march in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and in cities across the country. The event was started by Parkland students.

April 20: National High School Walk-Out for Anti Gun Violence

Students are encouraged to walk out of school on the anniversary of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. After a Connecticut teenager suggested the idea, more than 167,000 people signed an online petition in support.