Students in Memphis, across country begin walkouts over school gun violence

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Students at the University of Memphis went from a moment of silence to raising their voices across campus Wednesday, making sure they were heard on national student walkout day.

From Maine to Hawaii, thousands of students planned to stage walkouts Wednesday to protest gun violence, one month after the deadly shooting inside a high school in Parkland, Florida.

Organizers say nearly 3,000 walkouts are set in the biggest demonstration yet of the student activism that has emerged following the massacre of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

A walkout and rally began at the University of Memphis at 10 a.m.

In Memphis, students started with loud chanting at The University Center.

But then they went quiet for 17 minutes, one for each victim killed in a Florida school shooting.

"When schools are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back," the students chanted.

From there, students marched across campus to the FedEx Institute of Technology.

They know the largest company in Memphis has invested a lot in their school.

"It just makes it that much more personal. It's right here. It's right here," said Alexandria Broadnax with the U of M's Progressive Student Alliance.

They're calling for the shipping giant to end it's partnership with the NRA and stop providing discounts for members.

They also called on administrators and lawmakers.

"I don't believe there are enough age restrictions. I think there should be heavier background checks," Eleanor Fisher said.

Organizers said the University supported their efforts by helping them book the space and plan.

U of M President David Rudd released this statement to WREG: "It's always good to see students, and any voter for that matter, exercise their voice and influence in the American democratic process. I would simply encourage students to be attentive to the issue of unexcused absences and their individual class circumstances/demands."

Another faculty member called it a moment in history.

"My generation was not able to get the type of political change that needs to happen. I'm hoping these young people can do that," Dr. Darron Smith said.

Students at Rhodes College demonstrated and at the Academies of West Memphis also walked out onto the football field for 17 minutes for the 17 people killed in Florida.

Shelby County Schools, the largest district in the area, was out for Spring Break but students are planning an event in April.

Students from the elementary to college level are taking up the call in a variety of ways. Some planned roadside rallies to honor shooting victims and protest violence. Others were to hold demonstrations in school gyms or on football fields. In Massachusetts and Ohio, students said they’ll head to the statehouse to lobby for new gun regulations.

7000 pairs of shoes, one for every child killed by gun violence since the Sandy Hook school shooting, were placed on the Capitol lawn by Avaaz, a U.S.-based civic organization, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The coordinated walkout was organized by Empower, the youth wing of the Women’s March, which brought thousands to Washington, D.C., last year. The group urged students to leave class at 10 a.m. local time for 17 minutes — one minute for each victim in the Florida shooting.

Although the group wanted students to shape protests on their own, it also offered them a list of demands for lawmakers, including a ban on assault weapons and mandatory background checks for all gun sales.

“Our elected officials must do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to this violence,” the group said on its website.

It’s one of several protests planned for coming weeks. The March for Our Lives rally for school safety is expected to draw hundreds of thousands to the nation’s capital on March 24, its organizers said. And another round of school walkouts is planned for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado.

After the walkout Wednesday, some students in Massachusetts say they plan to rally outside the Springfield headquarters of the gun maker Smith & Wesson. Students and religious leaders are expected to speak at the rally and call on the gun maker to help curb gun violence.

At Case Elementary School in Akron, Ohio, a group of fifth-graders have organized a walkout with the help of teachers after seeing parallels in a video they watched about youth marches for civil rights in 1963. Case instructors said 150 or more students will line a sidewalk along a nearby road, carrying posters with the names of Parkland victims.

The walkouts have drawn support from companies including media conglomerate Viacom, which said it will pause programming on MTV, BET and all its other networks for 17 minutes during the walkouts, and students will temporarily take over MTV’s social media accounts.

The planned protests have drawn mixed reactions from school administrators. While some applaud students for taking a stand, others threatened discipline. Districts in Sayreville, New Jersey, and Maryland’s Harford County drew criticism this week when they said students could face punishment for leaving class.

In suburban Atlanta, one of Georgia’s largest school systems announced that students who participate might face unspecified consequences.

But some vowed to walk out anyway.

“Change never happens without backlash,” said Kara Litwin, a senior at Pope High School in the Cobb County School District.

The possibility of being suspended “is overwhelming, and I understand that it’s scary for a lot of students,” said Lian Kleinman, a junior at Pope High.

“For me personally this is something I believe in, this is something I will go to the ends of the Earth for,” Kleinman said.

Other schools sought a middle ground, offering “teach-ins” or group discussions on gun violence. Some worked with students to arrange protests in safe locations on campus. Officials at Boston Public Schools said they arranged a day of observance Wednesday with a variety of activities “to provide healthy and safe opportunities for students to express their views, feelings and concerns.” Students who don’t want to participate could bring a note from a parent to opt out.

Meanwhile, free speech advocates geared up for a battle. The American Civil Liberties Union issued advice for students who walk out, saying schools can’t legally punish them more harshly because of the political nature of their message. In Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Texas, some lawyers said they will provide free legal help to students who are punished.