A high school shooting in Florida led to a national student walkout that swept up students in Georgia, some with the support of their school districts and others facing threats of sanctions.
“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, who protested outside the school Wednesday morning 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.
The district didn’t respond to allegations that students at some high schools were blocked from walking out.
Cobb leans Republican. The mood couldn’t have been more different in the Democratic stronghold of the city of Atlanta.
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"Good for them. I am glad you had the opportunity to express your opinion," Atlanta Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said.
"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.”
As the walkout ended, Cobb came under fire for its handling of the walkout.
Nora Benavidez, an Atlanta-based civil rights attorney who is among lawyers helping students and parents, said staff at Sprayberry High School blocked outside doors to keep students from leaving the building.
A Cobb spokesman said it wasn’t true: “No students were prevented from leaving the building,” John Stafford said in an email. He added that the locks on classroom doors don’t prevent exiting, only entering, not acknowledging that blocked and locked are two different things.
Meanwhile, in Fulton County, students posted a video on Twitter that shows a howl of protest as a grownup, likely a staffer, 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 the days following this event, turnout is likely to be a topic of discussion. 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 at 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 polled by email this course 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.
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.”
Here’s a timeline of events as they unfolded at schools across the Atlanta metro area:
In Gwinnett County, some complained of threats of punishment.
Maya Smith, a 16-year-old junior, was sitting in her third period yearbook class at Norcross High School during the walkout.
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.
Wednesday was the first she had heard of the walkout, and she knew right away she wouldn’t be there.
“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 after classes let out parked in by a trio of fast food joints near the school.
Taegan Barnes, a 15-year-old Norcross High sophomore, said he had a test to take or else he would have been at the walkout.
He said administrators had threatened him with suspension out of school and even expulsion had he participated.
“I knew my rights,” he added.
He said those threats came after a smaller gathering on campus prior to Tuesday’s event that a television station attended. The extra attention, he said, changed the tone of the administration.
Still, students have been handing out fliers about the walkout for weeks, he said.
Update: A district spokeswoman, Sloan Roach, said students were told they would be punished but not to the extreme of suspension or expulsion. The Norcross High principal told students they would probably get an unexcused absence if they walked out, Roach said. “Suspension and expulsion are not consequences for these types of infractions.” The consequences for excessive absences do increase, she said, “but not to the levels you are being told.”
“We’re here for a peaceful demonstration on unity,” said the grownup, as she snatched the sheets of paper out of the hands of two students speaking about the U.S. Constitution and the right to bear arms.
The two girls at Cambridge High School in Fulton County had been saying that the 2nd Amendment was written in a different era, before the U.S. military had secured the nation.
“We are not saying that the right to bear arms should be taken away,” one of them continued. “We are saying it needs to be limited.”
Her time on a soapbox (it was actually a picnic bench) was limited, too.
Shortly after the grownup intervened, the surrounding crowd of teenagers howled.
“It’s a protest,” they yelled. “Let her speak!”
Update: The school principal, Ed Spurka, said in a letter to parents that the school had approved a student walkout plan to memorialize rather than politicize the Parkland shooting, but the two students “decided to go off-script and begin advocating for gun control.”
The principal said the school wanted “to stay on message with student unity and school safety,” so the students were “redirected” and asked to step down from the table. He noted that the school has 2,000 students and “cannot appear to take one political opinion over another.”
A Cobb County schools spokesman has denied claims that students were blocked from leaving classrooms to participate in the walkout.
“No student was prevented from leaving the building. It’s not possible to lock a classroom door to prevent exit from the classroom, only entrance to the classroom,” said John Stafford.
But several students and parents said on social media that that is exactly what happened.
And Mawuli Davis, an attorney part of a coalition to assist students walking out, was stationed at Lassiter High School where he said a student told him that they were locked in. That student’s parent added that they weren’t allowed onto school property for any reason from 9:45 a.m. to 10:45 a.m.
“It was a very intimidating situation over here at Lassiter,” Davis said. “A lot of the students very afraid … they said (there) was some yelling.”
He said he understood all of the about 30 students who got out had their names written down on a list by administrators.
Davis said students might also have been locked in at Sprayberry High School, which he visited after receiving a call on the coalition’s hotline.
The Atlanta Coalition in Support of the National Student Walk Out set up the hotline, 833-2STUDENT, for students to call if they feel they’ve been wrongfully punished as part of the walkout.
Stafford denied reports that five-day suspensions would be handed out to students who participated, adding that no standard punishment had been pre-determined.
He said legal trouble might come if the school district punishes students more than they usually would for not being in class.
If that’s the case, Davis said, that could “possibly initiate some litigation.”
Nora Benavidez, an Atlanta-based civil rights attorney, is among a coalition of lawyers helping students and parents with legal issues surrounding the student demonstration. She said Sprayberry High School in Cobb County has staff blocking outside doors to keep students from leaving the building.
"Reports of different schools preventing students from exercising their First Amendment rights or threatening them with extreme punishment is disappointing," said Nora Benavidez, an Atlanta-based civil rights attorney, who is part of a coalition of lawyers helping students and parents with legal issues surrounding the student walkout demonstration. "We are prepared to go forward with this as needed and are here to offer support in any way we can."
More than 100 students and demonstrators gathered outside the Georgia Capitol, waving signs that read “gun control now.”
They listened to speeches at Liberty Plaza before heading into the Gold Dome to urge lawmakers to ban assault weapons and high-capacity gun magazines.
“For too long we have danced around the issue of gun control as if it doesn’t effect our lives,” said Lauren Adams, a senior at Paideia School, a private school in the Druid Hills neighborhood of Atlanta.
Katie Jordan, a student at Kennesaw State University, said the mass shootings at schools and public events were her generation’s version of seismic social upheavals during the Vietnam War.
“We don’t want to think, ‘Am I going to go to school and come back?’” she said. “This has gone on far too long. And the kids who have lived through this are finally coming of age and putting a stop to it.”
Protesters rally at the Georgia Capitol.
Attorneys working with the Cobb County chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference are on their way to Lassiter and Sprayberry high schools in Cobb County to look into reports that students were blocked from leaving the school for the walkout.
A Cobb spokesman did not immediately return requests for comment.
Cobb spokesman John Stafford said that no students were prevented from leaving Kell, Sprayberry or Lassiter high schools.
“No students were prevented from leaving a building, at those schools or any others,” he wrote, in an email.
Meria Carstarphen, the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, said she hopes the walkout “will make a difference and change the narrative."
She grew up in Selma, Ala., and said protesting is a part of the history there and here. “Atlanta is the place where the civil rights movement was born and voting rights were won. We are a city that encourages peaceful protest and civic engagement. We should allow our kids to participate in that."
She applauded the students: "Good for them. I am glad you had the opportunity to express your opinion."
There was resentment and frustration over one Cobb County school’s handling of the walkout.
Stephanie Carlomagno, mother of the Walton High walkout organizer, said she thinks more students would have participated if the district had not threatened students with disciplinary action.
"They clearly were afraid of consequences, which is an unbelievable shame," she said.
Parents and other supporters were barred from the property, but set up beyond the perimeter, clapping as students returned to the school. Among those gathered on the sidewalk was Katie Friedman, who graduated last year from Walton and returned for the protest while on spring break from college. She was there to support her little brother, a sophomore, who joined the walkout.
Walton High has always encouraged students to be well-rounded leaders, but in this case, she said, "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."
The Cobb reaction to the planned walkout was displayed prominently on the district website in the days preceding the protest: “Students who choose to disrupt the normal operation of a school may be subject to consequences ... .”
During the walkout, the Fulton County Schools superintendent was monitoring events:
Lambert High School in Suwanee:
More than 20 students and a professor left their classes and headed to the Kennesaw State University campus green during the national walkout against gun violence.
Jennifer Cortez, an 8th Grader at Mundy's Mill Middle School, in Clayton County: "Today we walk out against an issue that has been neglected until it was too late. ... As students, we must stand and fight for our safety that has been revoked by those with ill intentions."
"Those who gain money off the business of guns like the NRA and Trump sit in silence. Maybe the killer wouldn't have had the gun if it wasn't so easy to obtain."
“People our age don’t do enough to make a change,” said Caleb Torres, 18, a senior at Lakeside High School in DeKalb County. Said Ellen Gebreyohannes, 16, another student there: “I came from Africa to get an education ... and we shouldn’t be afraid to go to school. This morning is to show that our voices matter.”
"The second amendment is up for debate again,” Rebecca Bordeau, a 6th grader at Mundy's Mill Middle School, in Clayton County. “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," she said.
"Our message is: we don't want our school to be next."
"We have to stop gun violence all over this country," said Jordan Ward, an 8th grader at Mundy’s Mill Middle School in Clayton County. "Whether it is accidental in Birmingham, 8- and 9-year-olds at Sandy Hook or students at Columbine."
According to students at Walton High School, 262 students walked out.
Rep. John Lewis weighs in...
Students at Collins Hill High School in Gwinnett County planned to meet by the school sign but as of 10:15 only a few people meandered around campus and there didn’t appear to be a demonstration. The gates outside the school were padlocked to ward off visitors.
Principal Kimberlee D. Barnett says students at Mundy's Mill Middle School were given time in social studies class to construct their protest signs. "We wanted to use this as a teaching moment," she said. "This is their reality. This wasn't done overnight. This is a student driven event. We're just here to facilitate."
Anna Rachwalski, 8th grade, Inman Middle School: “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.”
“(Fear) is definitely high. We don’t have much security. It feels like anyone really can just walk in. We’ve had a few active shooter drills (since Parkland) but it’s not enough. (Note: they have an SRO and principal Kevin Maxwell said he feels confident with the school’s security measures. Separate quotes from him coming.)
(Holding a sign that says “am i next”) “It means, is someone going to come into my school, a place where i am supposed to learn and grow, and shoot me?”
They held signs saying "stay active" and "We Demand Action."
The parents outside Walton High School in Cobb County were showing support for students there in the minutes before the planned 10 a.m. nationwide school walkout in protest of gun violence.
Students will stand in silence for 17 minutes — one minute for each life lost in Parkland, Fla., where a gunman opened fire in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day.
The walkout is controversial in Cobb, where Principal Judy McNeill recently sent an email to parents saying, “The Cobb County School District does not support or endorse walkout/protests that cause interruption to normal school operations” and students who walk out could face disciplinary action. “This is an unexcused absence.”