Briefly chanting, “Protect our schools, protect our lives,” about 300 Amherst Steele students walked out last Wednesday morning in a protest against gun violence.
They demanded better school security and showed solidarity with the survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla.
Students, joined by a few teachers, marched the length of Washington Street. Then they gathered in front of the high school’s main entrance for a silent memorial to the 17 teenagers and faculty who had been gunned down on Valentine’s Day exactly one month prior.
Amherst police closed down the street during the walkout. Officers were posted on the roof of the school, behind the building, and in unmarked vehicles to watch over the students and ensure their safety.
“A lot of people thought it would be political or about taking away gun rights,” said Nick Tipper, vice president of Steele student council, which organized the walkout. “But it wasn’t. It was about solidarity.”
He said Amherst students stand with peers in Avon and Westlake who made a similar demonstration earlier in the month, and well as those in Oberlin, Wellington, and other Lorain County school districts who walked out last Wednesday.
“We are unified. We have a voice. And we want to be heard,” Tipper said.
If some classmates were marching for political reasons, at least they were safe, said student council treasurer London Voss.
Led by president Nathan Moore and with support from secretary Rhyan Opel, the student government held long, intense conversations about what shape its protest should take.
Educators sat in on those discussions but didn’t shape them, according to principal Michael May and student council advisor Russ Marty.
“The big thing is that we support our students,” Marty said. “We’re not out promoting an agenda. We’re listening to the students and what they think is important.”
Student leaders told us they considered the protest a success.
They didn’t want to politicize the issue of gun violence. Their walkout was not about any specific piece of legislation, but about building a sense of community.
“We understand that something as simple as a walkout isn’t going to have any direct impact on legislation,” but Amherst students want the public to know they care deeply about their safety, Moore said.
Voss said many of her classmates are afraid. For example, when the entire city’s power went out for 11 hours on March 7, Steele students immediately dealt with fear — the first thought in many minds was that something had happened at the school and they were in physical danger.
“When the power goes out and it causes horrifying ideas to form about what could happen, it shows there’s a problem with the culture,” said Moore.
Those feelings aren’t likely to change unless students talk about them, Tipper said. During the walkout, he heard students sharing ideas, which was a step in the right direction.
He felt the demonstration helped the student body grow closer.
“We want the school, as cheesy as this sounds, to be a family,” Tipper said. “You’re not going to solve anything with more hate. Only with love and understanding.”
Women’s March Youth Empower called for walkouts at schools all across America and said there were more than 2,500 planned for March 14.
That group has very political aims — it promoted walkouts as a way to pressure Congress for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines; expanded background checks on all gun sales; passage of the federal restraining order law that would allow law enforcement to remove guns from a person’s possession if they pose a threat to themselves or others; and an act to demilitarize police.
“We view this work as part of an ongoing and decades-long movement for gun violence prevention in honor of all victims of gun violence — from James Brady to Trayvon Martin to the 17 people killed in Parkland,” the Youth Empower website said.
Not all demonstrations that day took the shape of a walkout.
Some districts encouraged students to wear orange, a color associated with gun violence prevention efforts. Others, such as the Oberlin City Schools, prompted students to wear red and silver, the colors of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz, 19, used an AR-15-style rifle in his attack, leading to renewed calls for common sense gun control legislation.
Cruz has been indicted on 17 counts of first-degree premeditated murder and first-degree attempted murder. His lawyers have asked for his not-guilty plea to be withdrawn, saying they want to avoid a death penalty verdict — they ask instead for 34 consecutive life sentences without parole.
Other sweeping student demonstrations are being planned in the U.S.
March for Our Lives is organized by students who survived the Parkland tragedy. It will be held in Washington, D.C., and other locations nationwide on Saturday, March 24.
The National High School Walkout is planned for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado. It will ask students to leave classes at 10 a.m. and not return that day.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.