JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Hundreds of thousands of students around the country left their classrooms Wednesday morning to protest gun violence in their schools and honor the 17 lives lost in a mass shooting one month ago at a South Florida high school.
Organizers said nearly 3,000 walkouts were planned in the biggest demonstration yet of the student activism that has emerged following the massacre.
Students around the Jacksonville area also participated, finding personal ways to remember the 14 students and three faculty members killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
Students at Beaches Chapel School in Neptune Beach gathered at their flagpole from 10 a.m. to 10:17 a.m. for a time of prayer, and dozens of students at River City Science Academy in Jacksonville walked out and lined up in the school's parking lot.
The RCSA students shared 17 minutes of silence, but every minute released a balloon as a student read a biography of one of the slain students.
A few miles away, students protested on the football field at Englewood High School, reading the names of the victims as balloons were released.
“The ceremony today meant that we were just giving our time to the students that passed, because even though I didn't personally know them, it hit me hard when I saw this, because it could have been easily any of my friends who went to my school,” Englewood student Marian Hernandez said.
Englewood senior Ariel Lopez and a committee of leadership students planned the school's walkout, which included a heartfelt speech and an opportunity for students to talk about school safety. A major topic of discussion was whether teachers should be armed.
“Arming teachers is not going to solve the problem. It's just going to create more problems. The teachers who have issues and students who have issues with teachers, that's not going to resolve anything,” Lopez said, adding that regardless of students' positions, it's important for them to be vocal. “It was a great cause, fighting for our voices to be heard.”
Students also held a rally at Atlantic Coast High School, where Club Activate planted 17 flowers and added a bench in honor of the Parkland victims. They held signs showing support for Stoneman Douglas.
A freshman at Stanton College Prep told News4Jax that hundreds of students at his school participated in the walkout. Gokul Madathil said the students spontaneously decided to form a circle around the school's track and held hands "to display our unity and support of the protest."
At Mandarin High School, students gathered in the courtyard for a student-led discussion, where a bucket labeled “Listen Up!” waited with pens and paper for students to share their demands for gun violence change.
Across town in Arlington, students at Terry Parker High School carried a banner that read “TP stands with MSD” during their walkout.
Duval County Public Schools said the district would accommodate and not punish students who chose to walk out to show their support for Wednesday's national effort.
The St. Johns County School District made similar allowances, as students gathered at Creekside, Nease and Bartram Trail high schools.
Parents of students who walked out in St. Johns County told News4Jax they were glad the district gave their children an opportunity to participate.
“I think it’s great that the district and the administration is supporting the eighth graders at our school, because this is a student-led memorial in honor of the victims at Stoneman Douglas, so I think it’s great that they’re letting the students take the lead and supporting them,” Valley Ridge Academy parent Laruen Kersting said.
Another mother at Valley Ridge told News4Jax that her daughter, Maddie Hollis, presented the administration with a plan for students at the school to take part in the day in a different way, remembering the lost lives that sparked the movement seen across the nation.
“My daughter was just super passionate about the victims that were involved in the shooting and really wanted to change what today was all about,” Katie Hollis said. “(For it) not to be about protesting but to walk out for those 17 minutes and really just honor those victims and their families.”
Sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students at Valley Ridge walked outside the school at 10 a.m. and gathered under a pavilion for 17 minutes of remembrance, recognizing each victim one by one.
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