On February 21, one week after a former student with an AR-15 murdered 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students around the country walked out of their schools and into protests in support of meaningful gun-control laws.
In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, nearly 100 high-school students from Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) left their school building and marched to a downtown commercial square, where they joined hands and observed 17 minutes of silence. The goal, according to the protest’s media liaison, senior Serena Zets, was to “express solidarity with the students in Parkland and show [gun violence] is not only an issue that affects individual schools and individual people, but a societal issue we need to reckon with as a country.”
In the aftermath of the shooting in Parkland, senior Christian Carter, one of three lead organizers of the protest, said he had been alarmed when he noticed that classmates and teachers weren’t talking about the shooting. “At CAPA we’re used to having conversations about what’s going on in the news,” he said. “But we didn’t talk about it, we didn’t have a conversation about these shootings.” He and the other organizers of the march spread word of the walkout plan on social media.
“No one stopped us as we left the building,” said Senior Nia Arrington, another lead organizer of the action. “They held the doors open for us. They called the police to escort us down there.… [principal] Ms. [Melissa] Pearlman stood in the office and waved us goodbye.” Students said teachers knew about the planned walkout and that many expressed support.
Zets was surprised by the turnout. As one of its leaders, she was at the front of the march and could only see the 10 people in front of her and 10 behind. But by the time the group had made it a block away from the school, she turned around to see 80 more trailing behind. She said that rumors of punishment by the school administration deterred many others from participating.
Carter said he remembered “looking at every single one of those kids’ faces” and appreciating “the beauty in seeing so much diversity in our walkout.” “It was three black kids who planned, who were the faces of our walkout, who organized it,” he said, referring to himself, Arrington, and senior Anyah Jackson. “I saw so many kids from CAPA who don’t shut up at school, so for them to stand—for students, for students to stand—for 17 minutes and not talk, there’s something powerful about that,” Carter said.
In Market Square, Arrington stood in the middle of the circle of students and addressed the crowd. “If our politicians won’t lead us—if our politicians won’t make change, we make that change!” she said. “The students, when we come together, it’s something powerful.…We will not be divided; we will not be locked out; we will not stop.”
As she led students in 17 minutes of silence, Arrington said she thought about the victims at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. “It’s hard to not put yourself in their shoes,” she said. “When is it going to happen again?”
After the walkout, the students said, the school called their parents and served the protesters with after-school detentions. According to students who attended a meeting with the school principal and district administrators, Superintendent Anthony Hamlet stressed that students who left the building unauthorized had created a safety concern, while Principal Pearlman wrote in an e-mail that she had learned about the walkout from a parent the morning that it took place, not from the students at a prior time. She said students had told her about their intent to walk out and march to the square when she asked later that morning. “While we all understand the immense emotional aspects to these events and respect the intent of students and staff that want to participate, we do not support such ‘walk outs,’” she wrote. “A ‘walk out’ of students creates additional safety concerns for both students and staff.”
Kate Daher, a retired Pittsburgh Public Schools social-studies teacher of 20 years who spent the latter part of her career at CAPA, led a brief, but effective, campaign against the punishment. She wrote in a letter to the editor, “I find it especially ironic that during Black History Month while our students engage in non-violent civic action, they are to be disciplined for doing what they learn to do in their 9th grade Civic classes under the course theme, ‘Be the Change.’… Instead of punishment, students and teachers should be encouraged to protest the dangerous conditions that exist as a result of gun violence. After all, it is their lives that are at stake.”
Daher described a “firestorm” of calls and e-mails hitting the school in response to the proposed punishment. It worked. Pearlman waived the detentions in favor of small group discussions known as “restorative circles,” saying she was “moved by the ‘passion’ and the ‘advocacy’” of participating students,” the Post-Gazette reported.
Building on the success of the walkout, Carter said organizers have raised hundreds of dollars to support PPS students’ travel to Washington, DC, for the March 24 March for Our Lives. Zets, who had previously organized a voter-registration drive that resulted in the registration of 80 percent of her eligible classmates, said that bringing elected officials to CAPA for a New Voters’ Forum is also among the students’ next steps.
“I think people need to look out,” Carter said. “Because 2018 is going to be a year of change, and a year of students raising our voices, and a year of saying that we are not backing down.”