North Carolina

'We deserve a safe place to learn.' After school walkouts, students gather in Raleigh.

On the anniversary of one of the nation's worst mass school shootings and two months after another school massacre, students around the country demanded action Friday before there's another tragedy.

The National School Walkout saw thousands of students around the country leave their classrooms Friday on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre to demand tougher gun control laws. The events were capped off locally Friday afternoon at a rally in downtown Raleigh where students and elected officials said action needs to be taken now.

"We deserve a safe place to learn," said Sarah Ansbrow, 17, an Apex High School senior and one of the organizers of Friday afternoon's Why Wake Walks protest. "We deserve to come home after school. We deserve to live until graduation.

"We deserve to live past 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 and so on, and so did every victim of gun violence all over this country. The government has failed to act."

Ansbrow spoke in front of hundreds of students holding signs saying things such as "We Will Not Be Silent," "My Right To Live Trumps Your Right To Kill" and "Children Are Worth More Than Your Guns."

Student protests have been a frequent occurrence nationally since the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida that left 17 people dead.

Students say they hope the ongoing protests will put pressure on politicians to reform gun laws, such as outlawing AR-15 rifles and banning bump stocks that can be attached to weapons to make them fire faster. That message was echoed at Friday afternoon's rally by Democratic Congressman David Price of Chapel Hill.

"This country is awash in guns, including guns of mass killing that have no place in civilian society," Price said to applause from the crowd in downtown Raleigh. "It shouldn't take these repeated tragedies, it shouldn't take the efforts of our students, but we are determined to make things better."

But F. Paul Valone, president of Grassroots NC, vowed that gun proponents would fight any efforts to restrict gun rights.

"Anything they introduce in the North Carolina General Assembly, I assure you we will kill," Valone said in an interview earlier this week.

State Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Raleigh Democrat, urged the students gathered at the Halifax Mall by the state legislative building to return during this year's legislative session.

"Just as the students in Parkland took a bus to the State Capitol, I ask that you literally not walk out but walk in to the General Assembly this coming May to demand common-sense gun reform from this legislature."

Many school districts have said they won't punish students as long as they returned to class after the walkouts. That was the case at walkouts Friday morning at schools such as Enloe High School in Raleigh, where students walked to the football stadium for a ceremony before returning to class.

"It's about time for our voices to be heard," said Emma Gonzalez, an Enloe freshman who helped organize the school's walkout. ""Since our government officials aren't doing much to help, I think the students and anyone, no matter how old you are, should speak up and say what they believe in."

But some Chapel Hill-Carrboro students left campus Friday as part of the protests, prompting school officials to warn that it could lead to disciplinary action being taken.

The school shootings have caused state leaders to form committees to study how to make schools safer. On Thursday, Gov. Roy Cooper announced a $130 million school safety proposal that included more school resource officers, counselors, psychologists, social workers and nurses.

Activists hope to build on the passion of students to push for changes in gun laws now at protests and later at the polls when they can vote. A group of 29 students and two teachers from Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh walked six miles from their campus to the afternoon rally after getting 90 students to register to vote.

"If you really care about what you're doing, it doesn't matter what you have to do," said Morgan Pirozzi, 16, a Cardinal Gibbons junior.

Sheel Patel, 17, a senior at Panther Creek High School in Cary and a Why Wake Walks organizer, told the crowd they're at the dawn of an era after years of pushing for changes in gun laws.

"We will register and vote," Patel said. "We will educate ourselves on the issues. We will contact our representatives.

"We will demand the change and we will make sure that there won't ever be another 17 deaths."

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui
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