In the weeks following the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, wave after wave of student-led protests formed and broke across the country, culminating in a national memorial walkout on February 21. Every day since, high-school and middle-school students across the country have in some way protested for stronger gun laws.
And even while they act now, the students are also preparing for the next few months. The March For Our Lives, the National School Walkout, and the organizers of the Women’s March hope to unite thousands of disparate, nationwide, high-school student-led groups with three national protests on March 14, March 24, and April 20. (Over 700 groups have registered the dates and locations of their protests on the March For Our Lives website; over 1,300 have registered with the National School Walkout.) Beyond that, though, each school or district—that is, the student organizers who populate them—has been organizing on its own. The ACLU and professional organizers have published how-to guides to lend a hand; some students are in contact with local community organizations. But in most cases, the students are bolstered simply by the support they find over social media.
One of these hubs of support and amplification appeared the day after the February 14 shooting, the Twitter account Student Walkout Against Gun Violence. Since then, it has kept an ongoing ledger of local actions as they build into a ground swell—something that would have been impossible for high-school students a decade ago. The account is helmed by a 19-year-old college student in Southern California who started it after she saw the videos from inside Douglas High School—also over social media. “I couldn’t sleep after I watched them,” she told me. The next day, when she saw photos of high-school students protesting across the country, she and a friend agreed they were tired of not doing anything. “I was like, ‘Well, I might as well give [students] a platform where everyone can connect and organize so that the movement is a little bit more powerful.”
The student, who prefers to stay unnamed to keep the focus on the protesters she’s amplifying, has been receiving daily—hourly, even—dispatches from high-school protests and walkouts around the country since the day after the shooting. With the help of her roommate and a friend, the student compiles photos and videos of each action, offering the resulting summary to the account’s 25,000 followers. Each dispatch is liked or retweeted hundreds, sometimes thousands, of times. She has connected reporters from Canada and London with students in California and Washington, who have appeared on international television. When a New Jersey reporter asked her if she’d heard of any kids organizing in Sussex County, she directed the reporter to two girls she remembered had reached out earlier.
“People always joke about ‘Oh, kids and their phones, their Instagrams and social medias and the FaceTweets,’ or whatever they’re going on about,” she told me. “But in reality, in a way, we were preparing for this movement. Because teenagers are so good with social media and technology, we’re just spreading this wildfire, which has been really cool to see. This skill that adults look down on is now one of our greatest assets.”
Often, students reach out to @studentwalkout because they’re unsure anyone at their school would join them. But they also discover through the account who in their school feels the same way. This was the case when two girls in a New York school reached out. When the California student put them in touch, they wound up having several classes together. Now they’re organizing a walkout for April 20. The California student said she uses that story to encourage other students who message her with the same concern. “We’re planning this movement in between math problems and in between passing periods,” she said. “Before school, after school, after soccer practice—it’s really amazing to see what teenagers are doing.”
In Minneapolis, Minnesota, then-14-year-old freshman Isra Hirso—daughter of State Representative Ilhan Omar, the country’s first Somali-American elected legislator—saw @studentwalkout’s call for a February 21 national walkout. She organized more than 150 students to leave class that day—on the next, she turned 15. Protesting students walked out of their classrooms in the middle of the school day and took the train to City Hall, joining throngs of other protesters from four other high schools, many of whom trudged six miles in the snow to get there. In response to the protest, several students were invited to speak at a committee meeting later that afternoon, which then passed a provision to its legislative agenda encouraging lawmakers to ban assault weapons, silencers, bump stocks, and extended magazines. Hirso said that the protesters are working with statewide student group Students In Action to draft a bill they will be sending to their majority-Republican state legislature later this month. Other student walkouts have prompted similar meetings. A group of students in Kalamazoo, Michigan, after gathering over 150,000 signatures for their change.org petition “Students Fighting Guns Because Adults Won’t,” have met with a state senator and three representatives to talk about statewide gun reform. They plan to join the national walkouts in March and April. “Our first day, I think we gathered 1,000 signatures, and now we’re looking at over 100,000, and it’s only been a week,” said Idrees Schiever, a 17-year-old junior and one of the petition’s organizers. “Students might not be of voting age, but there are definitely ways through organization that you can have your voice heard.”
One high school in Northeast Ohio held two protests on February 21—only one was school-sanctioned, scheduled at the end of the school day on the soccer field. According to 17-year-old junior Fintan Bracken, the point of the protest was to be disruptive and seen—so he and 72 other students walked out at noon, instead, gathering around the flagpole at the front of the school. When each student was taken into the office after, administrators gave them a choice: after-school detention, or write a letter to state legislators about gun control. Bracken, along with about 10 other students, are now planning additional walkouts March 14 and 24—theirs, he said, is the generation to grow up with school shootings. He and his classmates particularly remember 2012, when a gunman killed three students at Chardon High School, 20 minutes away—their current principal was the principal at Chardon at the time of the shooting. “That was the first school shooting that I remembered distinctively, because that was so close to home,” Bracken said. “We know people who know people who got killed that day.”
“We all have a personal memory connecting us to the issue,” said Schiever, one of the organizers from Kalamazoo. In 2016, a man killed six in a five-hour shooting spree across the city. “What really pushed the needle for us this time was just how fed up we were, coming into class and having to talk about another mass shooting,” he said. “We all felt like it was really possible that nothing would end up being done about it.”
Students in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine men and women died in the 2015 church shooting, are also organizing with the memory of their community’s experience in mind. “Your school is supposed to be a haven. And honestly, we don’t feel safe,” said 16-year-old sophomore Sydney Clinton, who along with about 20 other students in north Charleston high schools are organizing marches and a local town-hall meeting, inspired by the televised one CNN hosted a week after the shooting. “We are the future of this society. And while a lot of us aren’t even old enough to vote, we have a say in our political system. And we cannot let anyone stop us or discourage us, because we can do this—we need to do this.” Zac Eckert, a 16-year-old junior organizing walkouts among six high schools in the Gilbert Public School District outside Phoenix, Arizona, agreed that not being able to vote is frustrating. “A lot of times it just feels like we’re stuck in the middle, and we can’t make a difference,” he said. “But if we all rise together and put our voices together and make sure that people are listening, we have a platform, and people are going to listen to us.”
While some high schools are in communication with local Women’s March outposts for guidance, many protests are happening in small towns outside a national organization’s reach. Some protests have been hundreds strong; others were kept alive by a handful of passionate students. Some protesters were dealt after-school detentions and suspensions; other schools responded with praise. Each time, though, the students are refusing to ignore the problem or be ignored. “We have technology. We know what’s going on. We can’t be kept in the dark,” said Taylor Redington, the 17-year-old organizer at a St. Petersburg, Florida, high school of a rally to be held the day after a school-wide walkout March 14 where the city’s mayor, Rick Kriseman, will make a speech. Students there also joined in the February 21 national walkout, though they could only step outside their classroom doors. Taylor said the halls had been packed with students who stood in silence for 17 minutes. “Sometimes you feel like you’re alone in the situation, but then you see all these like-minded people are around you—they’re feeling the same thing you’re feeling. We’re not going to just sit here and take it—we can think for ourselves.”