Triangle students walk out to demand gun control, safer schools. Here's why.

Hillside High students join National School Walkout

Michael McGirt, the student body president at Hillside High School, speaks to hundreds of fellow Hillside students during "National School Walkout Day" on Wednesday, March 14, 2018.
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Michael McGirt, the student body president at Hillside High School, speaks to hundreds of fellow Hillside students during "National School Walkout Day" on Wednesday, March 14, 2018.

Students walked out of class at schools across the Triangle on Wednesday morning, part of a nationwide call for gun control and safer schools since the Parkland, Florida, school shootings one month ago.

The Women's March Youth EMPOWER encouraged students across the country to walk out at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes — one minute for each of the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida on Feb. 14.

Walkouts also took place at Carrboro and Chapel Hill high schools, and in Durham at Hillside, Northern and other high schools.

At Hillside High School, hundreds of students began to make their way to the bus parking lot shortly before 10 a.m.

After a moment of silence, officers from Hillside's Student Government Association stepped onto a riser near the school to call for an end to gun violence and stricter gun laws.

“This national walkout is a great way to bring awareness to the issue of gun violence and safety in our schools,” said Jalen McKoy, president of the junior class. “But, we must know that action has to be taken after students around the United States walk back inside their classrooms.”

Hillside leaders have formed an alliance with the Student Government Association at N.C. Central University.

Durham School of the Arts students take part in the Wednesday, March 14, 2018 National School Walkout to protest gun violence in schools, demand safety measures be implemented.

They co-authored a letter to send to lawmakers, urging them to not allow teachers to carry guns, limit gun access for people with mental illnesses and to strengthen laws around background checks.

“This will make students, parents and the entire country aware that the youth see this as a problem,” said Michael McGirt, president of the Hillside student body. “As the next generation of voters, it's important that we put our own policies in place to make the world the kind of place we want it to be.”

LaPrince-Miller Smith, director of academic affairs for the NCCU SGA, told students that NCCU leaders are proud of them for standing up against gun violence.

“This is your fight,” Smith said. “Those 17 lives that were taken could have been any of us. Do you understand that?”

Wednesday's “walkout” and rally were punctuated with poems, songs and dance performed by Hillside students to the cheers of schoolmates.

“It was nice to see all of the students come out and participate,” said Kayla Beasley, the student body vice president. “We just wanted to make a stand.”

At Northern, a student read the names of each of the 17 slain Parkland victims.

"We were trying to spread support for each other," said Chloe Baker, one of the student organizers at Northern. "These kids were our age who died in Florida. This is a huge issue that we haven't gotten the chance to speak out about a lot. With the momentum from Parkland, I feel like it was important that we had our own movement here and that our voices were heard here."

Lily Lehman, another student organizer, said she was overwhelmed by her school's response.

Nearly 1,600 students at the Durham School of the Arts walked out of class shortly after 1 p.m.

They joined hands, stretched out, symbolically circling the school in a show of solidarity against gun violence.

Meanwhile, several student leaders gathered in the school's office where Saraya Ashley, the student class president, read the names of the 17 people killed in the school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, pausing 17 seconds after each name.

“We also do not want to forget all of the students killed at Sandy Hook in 2012, Virginia Tech in 2007, Columbine in (1999) and Red Lake High School in 2005,” Ashley said. “The list is so long that we can't read every name.”

Outside, where students stood hand-in-hand, snuggling for warmth against a chilled wind, Sha're Strachan, a DSA senior, said the nation leaders must take a common-sense approach to gun control.

“This has happened too many times,” Strachan said. “We must figure out a way to make it stop. I don't want to feel afraid to go to school.”

Kati Redman, also a DSA senior, said it's important for students to take a stand against gun violence and to let everyone know that it's not acceptable.

“No one should own an assault rifle,” Redman said. “There's been too many deaths. Everyone deserves to feel safe at school.”

Students at DSA filled out postcards to mail to Congress, urging them to adopt sensible gun control laws.

A dozen or more parents and elected officials attended DSA's walkout to support students.

“It's really wonderful to see this level of interest and concern about gun violence and gun control and regulation and to see this level of activism, which I haven't seen since the 60s when it came to protesting for civil rights and during the anti-war period against the war in Vietnam,” said State Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham.

Steve Unruhe, vice chairman of the Durham Public Schools Board of Education, said he's proud of the way students have stepped to the plate to voice their concern about violence.

“I'm deeply sad students have to do this but proud that they have chosen to make their voices heard,” Unruhe said. “It's impressive, and the realization that the names read to day could be our students, is deeply, deeply sad.”

DSA Principal David Hawks said students deserve a lot of credit for advocating for themselves and taking a stand against gun violence.

“It's sad think that whether you're at a concert, whether you're at a mall or school, you can't be safe anymore in America,” Hawks said. “I really hope that some common sense will prevail.”

East Chapel Hill High School students each spoke on behalf of one of their fellow students murdered in Florida during a school student walkout Thursday, March 14, 2018 in Chapel Hill. This student was speaking in memory of Carmen Schentrup.

"A lot more than I expected," Lehman said. "I thought there would be maybe 200 but there more than 300. It was a very good turnout.

"As students we feel like our voices aren't always heard. But when schools are doing this and taking action, it really brings awareness to what is going on and that people care about this and they want change."

State Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, led the students in a chant of "Not One More!" State Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham, a former judge, also spoke, calling for stricter gun control.

Before students walked out at East Chapel Hill High, the school held discussions about gun violence in each class. to help students feel safer and more involved with their schools.

East Chapel Hill principal Eileen Tully said Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools decided to use the walkout as an opportunity to foster student growth.

"That’s what the district did, and it believes the student voice is valuable,” Tully said.

Sophomore Max Poteat, one of the organizers, said the students met on weekends to plan their walkout.

At 9:55 a.m. students began walking out, wearing orange T-shirts with the hashtag "#enough" on the front and the names of local businesses and individuals supporting the walkout on the back.

Tully said she didn’t know exactly how many students walked out, but that it was an overwhelming majority of the school’s 1,450 students. Some teachers, some also wearing the orange T-shirts, also gathered outside, helped keep order.

Seventeen students memorialized the Parkland, Florida, shooting victims, coming up one by one with a picture of a victim. They said a few words about the victim whose picture they held. Some fought back tears as they spoke.

“Enough is enough,” said freshman Laila Kishun. “Nothing has been done, and I think it’s just unacceptable.”

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Junior Jackson Porter said he would like to see checkpoints with metal detectors at the entrance to the school. “It is a government building,” he said.

Freshman Sydney Morgan said she sees a warning in the Parkland shooting.

“Guns are so readily available,” she said, “What happened in Florida could happen here.”

In downtown Hillsborough parents and community members gathered at the Old Orange County Courthouse in Hillsborough chanting "Enough is Enough" to show support for student walkouts supporting stronger gun control.

Even before Wednesday, students at some Triangle schools held walkouts in the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting. On Feb. 28, more than 2,000 students at Green Hope High School in Cary walked out of class to demand political changes such as tougher gun laws.

More protests are planned nationally on April 20, the anniversary of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Colorado. Students from several Wake County high schools plan to hold rally that day in downtown Raleigh against gun violence.