Students clustered together on the athletic field at Lewinsville Park in McLean on Wednesday, many of them huddled in sweatshirts and hoodies as protection against winds that made 40 degrees feel more like 20.
When Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America activist Mary Beth Tinker asked the teenagers why they chose to walk out of their schools, their individual answers varied in substance but were united in feeling.
One student mentioned that he has a friend at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where a gunman killed 17 people on Feb. 14.
Another student said that she gets worried when leaving her classes to use the bathroom, because she does not want to be stuck in the hallway if there is an active shooter.
“I don’t want anyone else to die. No one deserves this,” a McLean High School freshman said, admitting that she had initially been scared to get involved in efforts to end gun violence but was ultimately inspired to participate by the leadership of students at Stoneman Douglas and other schools.
Like thousands of other youths across the U.S., dozens of McLean High School students left their classrooms and stood outside their school at 10:00 a.m. on Mar. 14, the one-month anniversary of the shooting at Stoneman Douglas, as part of a National School Walkout put together by the Youth Empower committee of the Women’s March.
Sixteen-year-old Neha Rana, one of six students who organized the event, led her classmates in 17 minutes of silence, one minute for each of the people killed in Parkland.
Before moving the protest to Lewinsville Park a few blocks down the street, Rana warned participants that they would receive unexcused absences if they stayed out of school any longer and gave everyone a chance to return to class. Very few retreated inside.
In an email to parents and staff, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) Superintendent Scott Brabrand emphasized that the school system did not oppose or endorse any student walkouts, but principals were instructed to work with students to organize their events in order to minimize disruptions to the instructional school day.
Students who exhibited inappropriate behavior or took actions beyond a planned 17-minute observance could be subject to discipline as outlined in the FCPS Student Rights and Responsibilities handbook, he said.
When the McLean High School students arrived at Lewinsville Park, they were joined by peers from other Fairfax County schools, including a sizable contingent from Alexandria’s T.C. Williams High School, as well as adult community members, like Mary Beth Tinker and Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust.
Because the event was organized through the Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia chapter of Students Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Rana says that students in schools all across Northern Virginia were invited to attend the gathering, though many other schools held their own walkouts.
Wednesday’s event was the second time this month that McLean High School students walked out to protest gun violence.
The same student organizers had previously worked with school administrators to organize a walkout on Mar. 1 that drew about 100 students onto McLean High School’s football field that afternoon.
Rana says that she and the other organizers had originally hoped to have speakers at the Mar. 1 rally, but administrators prevented those speakers, members of the media who came to cover the event, and other outside visitors from coming onto the high school’s campus.
As a result, when it came time to plan the Mar. 14 walkout, the students took a different approach.
“We thought they had our best interests in their hearts,” Rana said. “However, seeing as they completely backfired and went against everything we planned for our first walkout, we didn’t work with the administration at all for this one.”
According to an article on the walkout by “The Highlander,” McLean High School’s student newspaper, the walkout organizers did not have their guest speakers vetted before they came on campus as required by school rules.
Many of the speakers expected for that earlier walkout showed up to talk to students at Lewinsville Park on Wednesday, including Alexandria resident and domestic violence shooting survivor Kate Ranta.
Alexandria Music Theater Academy co-founder Salli Garrigan shared her experience of surviving the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado on Apr. 20, 1999. She was a junior at the time and still remembers hearing bullets ricochet as she dashed through the school auditorium in search of an escape.
“After Columbine, we left it to the grownups to make this right, to fix the system, to keep us safe,” Garrigan said. “Their efforts have been at best a disappointment. What’s been happening over the past few weeks across the country at gatherings like this is anything but disappointing.”
While many student speakers focused on sharing their personal thoughts and experiences, they did not shy away from politics.
They listened to both current state Dels. Kathleen Murphy (D-34th) and Mark Levine (D-45th) as well as Congressional candidates Daniel Helmer and Lindsey Davis Stover, who are vying for the 10th District Democratic nomination in the hopes of unseating Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) in the November midterms.
The students cheered in response to calls for stricter gun measures, such as universal background checks or a ban on gun purchases for domestic violence perpetrators. They booed when Georgetown University law professor Alicia Plerhoples noted that 60 bills related to gun safety had been introduced in the Virginia General Assembly’s 2018 session but none passed.
“We want to make sure we have stricter gun laws, but our first priority is to make sure that we keep our children and our schools safe,” said Rana, who met with Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) with her fellow organizers on Tuesday. “These adults who run our government are letting us live in a sense of fear, and our message I think as a whole school, as a country of students, is that when injustice becomes our law, resistance becomes our duty.”
Students at Madison High School, South Lakes High School, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Herndon High School, and several other Fairfax County schools held their own walkouts.
Some middle and elementary schools also participated, with at least one Longfellow Middle School student showing up at Lewinsville Park.
A pair of 11-year-old students at George Mason Elementary School in Alexandria organized a walkout with more than 60 students, who held signs and lay on the ground in silence outside their school as their parents watched.
According to The Guardian reporter Lois Beckett, the George Mason Elementary School walkout lasted 18 minutes instead of the standard 17 minutes to acknowledge 17-year-old Courtlin Arrington, a student at Huffman High School in Birmingham, Ala., who was fatally shot by a classmate on Mar. 7.
“I think…that specifically African-American women, when they are shot and killed, or when they are killed in general, their names aren’t remembered,” Naomi Wadler, one of the two student organizers, told Beckett. “So, I thought it would be important to add an extra one minute.”
According to the Women’s March website, students across the U.S. hosted 3,136 walkouts on Mar. 14, though that number does not include any events that were not officially registered with the organization.
Lake Braddock Secondary School student Sofia Lombardi says that she hopes the National School Walkouts shows Congress that the students fighting to stop gun violence in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas shooting have no plans of stopping until gun laws are changed.
Lombardi lived in Broward County, Fla., before moving to Fairfax County and admits that she was relieved when she learned that the Feb. 14 shooting had not occurred at her old school.
“I was still in shock that it was so close to home,” Lombardi said. “We need to realize that this could happen to us. This could happen to our neighbors. This could happen to our friends, and nothing’s going to be fixed until we take action.”