Brushing aside possible sanctions for leaving school, several hundred Chapel Hill high school students walked out of class Friday and marched to Franklin Street where they demanded Congress and state lawmakers adopt stricter gun laws.
The walkout, part of a National School Walkout to coincide with the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre, was not authorized by school officials, so students could face penalties that range from being hit with an unexcused absence to suspension.
But the 100 or more students who gathered outside East Chapel Hill High on a chilly morning made two things clear: They believe taking a stand against gun violence is the right thing to do, and they are prepared to accept any penalty for taking it.
High school principals made a robo call to parents earlier this week warning them that the Friday's walkout planned by CHC Enough, a student-led anti-gun violence organization, would be viewed as a school disruption and violation of the Student Code of Conduct.
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Frances O'Grady, an East senior and one of the organizers, said administrators were "intentionally vague" about what punishment students might receive.
"As far as we know the worst they can do is to give us an unexcused absence," O'Grady said. "Anything else, and they would be punishing our speech."
Jeff Nash, the spokesman for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, said punishment for leaving school would be handled by principals and that the penalty will vary by student. Students with only one offense under the student code, for example, would receive a lighter punishment than students with multiple offenses.
Students arrive fired up
After the miles-long trek to Franklin Street, students from East, Chapel Hill and Carrboro high schools arrived at Peace and Justice Plaza fired up, and seemingly even more energized than before leaving school.
Students defiantly chanted, "We'd rather be suspended than have our lives ended."
They also took shots at the National Rifle Association, which they contend is a major roadblock to tougher gun laws because of the gun lobby's influence on elected officials.
"Hey, hey, NRA how many kids have you killed today," they shouted.
Students across the country organized similar events Friday and have done so ever since the Feb. 14 school massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, left 17 people dead. Students walked out of class on March 14, and events were held during March 24 March for Our Lives rallies.
Durham Public Schools spokesman Chip Sudderth said there were few school walkouts at various DPS schools on Friday, but no reports of students leaving campuses.
Nico Field, a freshman at Carrboro High, said he thought it was important to support the movement by walking out of class Friday.
"Too many kids are dying," Field said. "I'm not concerned about the consequences."
Friday's march came one day after Gov. Roy Cooper pledged to ask legislators for an additional $130 million so public schools and colleges can improve building safety and hire hundreds of additional school-based nurses, psychologists and police officers.
Leaders urge students to vote
Once fully assembled on Peace and Justice Plaza, students spoke passionately about the need for change.
"You have to get out and register to vote," said Max Poteat, a sophomore at East and one of the organizers. "Voting will help to bring about the change we want. It all starts with voting."
Talia Pomp, a senior at East and another organizer, noted the significance of students gathering tat Peace and Justice Plaza.
"Civil rights, workers’ rights, women's rights, and anti-war efforts have all been fought for through sit-ins, marches, and rallies at this very site," Pomp said. "That is why in 2006, the Old Post Office Plaza was renamed the Peace and Justice Plaza. That is why we continue our community’s tradition of resistance here today."
Camille Witt, a senior at East, said students across the nation channeled the bravery of those children who took part in the Children's March of 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama. The march became a turning point in black people's struggle for civil rights after photos of children being blasted by fire hoses and attacked by dogs were beamed around the world.
"They marched despite the threats or consequences so that our generation could live in the world we have today," Witt said. "They fought for civil rights, for Americans like me, for the future generations. This is our way to honor their legacy. If they were willing to endure violence and dehumanizing attacks, it should be simple for us to gather today facing only the risk of detention or an absence."
Black lives matter
Kennedy Collins, a senior at East, urged the mostly white crowd to continue to stand tall when black and brown lives are taken by senseless gun violence.
"A true ally stands up for all people," Collins said, noting that black males are 13 times more likely to be shot than white males. "Protect these lives like you protect yours. Advocate for these lives like you advocate for yours."
In response to Collins' remark, students began to shout "Black Lives Matter."
Although Friday's rally was a student-led event, two elected officials and a candidate for U.S. Congress were invited to speak.
Carrboro Alderwoman Jacquelyn Gist told students she had almost given up on them.
"I thought young people didn't care anymore," Gist said.
She urged students to vote when they come of age and to use their energy and political clout to bring about the change they want to see.
"They [politicians] are particularly scared of you because they don't know yet how you're going to vote," Gist said. "They don't know what your issues are yet. You are making banks change who they're lending to. Did you know that? They're starting not to lend to gun manufacturers. And you're making evil, lying, right wing TV pundits shut the hell up."
State Rep. Grier Martin, a Democrat who represents the 34th District, said his generation has failed to protect students from gun violence, but the current student-led movement has begun to make a difference.
"They're scared now," Martin said. "You've got their attention, but they still think you're just a bunch of teenagers who will lose your focus and go back on to Instagram and on your XBoxes and leave them alone and they're going to keep making money out of blood."
An Army veteran, Martin was critical of proposals to arm teachers as part of a strategy to make schools safer.
"I've learned how to use a gun and practiced it for over 25 years, and actually done it down in Afghanistan," Grier said. "But even with all that training, I have no idea how to protect you from an active shooter in a school. If we put a gun in the hands of your teachers, they're certainly not going to know how to do it without hours and hours of training."
Michelle Laws, a Democratic congressional candidate challenging incumbent David Price in the Fourth District seat, said students have always been at the forefront of change.
"Your remind me of a long history of students who came through this university [UNC-Chapel Hill] who were fighting against racial inequality and fighting against us having investments in South Africa," Laws said. "You remind me of the young people who stood in South Africa on the front lines until the walls of Apartheid came tumbling down, so don't underestimate the power of you standing here against gun violence."
Several students from Smith Middle School, some accompanied by parents, also joined the high school students on the march and attended the rally.
Daphne Carden, 12, a sixth-grader at Smith, said her parents were initially afraid to allow her to join the march.
"It took a lot of begging," Carden said.