Students to walk out nationwide protesting gun violence

The Capitol lawn is covered by 7,000 pairs of shoes, one for every child killed in school shootings and other gun violence since the Sandy Hook school shooting. The shoes were placed on the Capitol lawn Tuesday by Avaaz, a U.S.-based civic organization, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP photo)

From Maine to Hawaii, students planned to walk out of school today to protest gun violence in the biggest demonstration yet of the student activism that has emerged in response to last month’s massacre of 17 people at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

In nearly 3,000 protests nationwide, students from the elementary to college level are taking up the call in a variety of ways. Some planned roadside rallies to honor shooting victims and protest violence. Others were to hold demonstrations in school gyms or on football fields. In Massachusetts, Georgia and Ohio, students said they’ll head to the statehouse to lobby for new gun regulations.

The coordinated walkouts were loosely organized by Empower, the youth wing of the Women’s March, which brought thousands to Washington, D.C., last year. The group urged students to leave class at 10 a.m. local time for 17 minutes — one minute for each victim in the Florida shooting — and suggested demands for lawmakers, including an assault weapons ban and mandatory background checks for all gun sales.

“Our elected officials must do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to this violence,” the group said on its website.

But each community was urged to shape its own protests, and while parents and teachers in many districts worked together to organize age-appropriate activities, school administrators had mixed reactions. Some have applauded students for taking a stand, while others threatened discipline.

Districts in Sayreville, New Jersey, and Maryland’s Harford County drew criticism this week when they said students could face punishment for leaving class. In Pensacola, Florida, Superintendent Malcolm Thomas ordered up an in-school assembly instead. He warned students that they could discuss voting and mental health issues, but not guns, and saying that political banners would not be allowed.

“You can’t make political statements, it can’t be a pro-gun or anti-gun assembly,” Thomas told the Pensacola News-Journal.

Free speech advocates geared up for battles.

The American Civil Liberties Union issued advice for students, saying schools can’t legally punish them more harshly because of the political nature of their message. In Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Texas, some lawyers said they will provide free legal help to students who are punished. The ACLU of Georgia’s guidance letters to districts said “The United States Supreme Court has long held that students do not ‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate’.”

This nationwide action is one of several protests planned for coming weeks. The March for Our Lives rally for school safety is expected to draw hundreds of thousands to the nation’s capital on March 24, its organizers said. And another round of school walkouts is planned for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado.