Local students to participate in nationwide solidarity walkout

aheymann@vagazette.com

Students from the Williamsburg-James City and York County school district and the College of William and Mary will walk out of class at 10 a.m. Wednesday for 17 minutes to stand in solidarity with the students and victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.

The walkout comes one month after the shooting at Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Fla., and the 17 minutes represent one minute for each life lost there.

On the afternoon of Feb. 14 the suspected shooter and former Stoneman Douglas student took an Uber to the school. Armed with a semi-automatic rifle he activated the fire alarm and began shooting. Seventeen people were killed and 14 were injured, surpassing Columbine as the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history.

Students from Lafayette, Warhill, Jamestown, York and possibly Bruton high schools as well as Toano and Hornsby middle schools plan to participate in the walkout.

Jamestown students will walk to a painted rock in front of the school during the protest. On Friday, students painted the rock with the colors and mascot of Stoneman Douglas to honor the school.

W-JCC issued a statement that there will be no consequences for students who participate in the walkout.

“While we do not sanction this walk-out, we respect the way our students are thoughtfully planning their participation,” the statement said.

While students who peacefully assemble will not face any consequences and will be allowed to make up missed class work, students who leave campus or are disruptive will be subject to appropriate disciplinary actions.

Katherine Goff, York County Schools spokeswoman, said the division is working to develop plans that meet both the division's responsibility to provide a safe learning environment for all students while recognizing the rights of students and staff.

Isabela Riofio, a student at Hornsby, said she and her friend Rebecca Delbos organized their school's walkout. They approached school administrators about having one after seeing the Women’s March’s Instagram post about the #Enough walkouts. The students plan to gather outside in the bus circle, where there will be a table set up with postcards for students to send to their representatives. The table and postcards will be set up by parents from the Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists church.

Warhill students who walk out of class will gather at the front of the school. Sianna Ferguson, a student at Warhill, said they plan to have a moment of silence followed by a few speeches given by students and possibly guests. Ferguson said they have invited all members of the Williamsburg City Council, James City Board of Supervisors, state Sens. Tim Kaine, Mark Warner and Rob Wittman to join them.

York County schools are preparing for students to participate in walkouts. The district announced it would not punish students participating in the walkout as long as they obeyed the school’s rules, including dress code and any possible direction of school staff. They also plan to have some faculty members stationed in areas where they expect students to gather. The schools will not allow parents or other community members to participate in the walkout because of safety concerns.

“Our intent is to meet both the division’s responsibility to provide a safe, secure learning environment for all students while recognizing the rights of students as outlined in the division’s Student Handbook & Conduct Code as well as the School Board Policy Manual,” said an email sent out to parents Thursday.

The protests here are part of a nationwide walk-out movement #Enough, organized by Women’s March Youth EMPOWER, a group organized by those who planned the Women’s March in Washington. The movement has gained traction through social media. Schools from Scotch Plains, New Jersey to Northridge, California plan to join in the protest. There are more than 2,000 walkouts registered through womensmarch.com, but since, for instance, none of the W-JCC schools are listed on the website, it is likely more are planned.

Shooting hits close to home

Lexi Solomon, a senior at Jamestown, said her best friend Justine Mulholland attends Stoneman Douglas. The two went to Hornsby Middle School together. Solomon said she found out about the shooting from a CNN news alert on her phone.

“I just kind of knew in my gut that it was Justine’s school, I knew something was wrong and I started panicking,” Solomon said. "I went on CNN and said ‘Yeah that is her school.’ … I tried to call her and it did not go through, but then she called me back a couple minutes later and she was still ... running.”

Mulholland said she was outside when she heard the first shots. Initially, no one could tell whether the shooting was a drill, but once they realized it was not, Mulholland said she and others left school grounds. The students used a narrow strip of ground next to a ravine to escape, she said they had to crawl across the ground to make sure they did not fall in the water.

“It’s Florida and any body of water there could have alligators, so we did not want to risk that as well," Mulholland said.

The students then ran to a nearby shopping center to try to regroup somewhere their parents could pick them up. Mulholland said they did not realize the shooter had also left until someone told them he had not been caught yet.

"It was so scary, it was just terrible,” Mulholland said.

Mulholland said the confusion continued even after she went home. Students were texting each other asking if they had seen their friends. Some students went to a Hilton Hotel and those who were injured were taken straight to the hospital, so it was hard to keep track of who was missing. Mulholland said she did not hear there were 17 victims until the day after the shooting.

“I think the Tuesday before, Parkland had been voted the safest town in Florida or something like that, so it was really scary,” Mulholland said. “You live in Parkland, Florida, the crime rate is almost nothing and then something like this happens. I can’t really wrap my head around exactly what happened and it is super difficult for me to understand how I feel.”

While Mullholland left the shooting physically unscathed, she lost eight of her friends that day. The shooting was also the birthday of her cousin, who had died in November.

“I had never lost so many people at once,” Mulholland said.

Going to her friends’ celebration of life and viewings was hard for Mulholland. She said it was different than with her cousin because while her cousin was sick, her friends’ lives were taken away in an act of violence.

Making a point

Solomon said the walkout is about showing solidarity with the students of Stoneman Douglas, such as for her friend Mulholland. She said a big misconception is that the walkout is about gun control.

However, Ferguson and Riofio both say the walkout is about school safety, as well as being in solidarity with the students from Stoneman Douglas.

“We should have a safe place to learn without fear,” Riofio said.

Students from the College of William and Mary have also organized through an event page on Facebook. Samyuktha Mahadevan, an international relations major and event organizer, said that when she found out students planned to walk out of school, she thought it would be a good idea to have one at the college as well.

“After the Parkland shooting, seeing students … having these conversations themselves was very inspirational,” Mahadevan said. “I know that the plague of school shootings is something that all my peers have grown up with, and I figured the best way to stand up for ourselves and each other is to participate.”

After just a week, more than 200 students have signed up to participate and more than 400 have said they’re interested in attending. Mahadevan said she knew it would be popular because school shootings are an issue that crosses all barriers.

March for Our Lives

A march in Washington, D.C., is planned for March 24, organized by March for Our Lives, another protest movement formed in reaction to the shooting at Stoneman Douglas. The event starts at noon at Pennsylvania Avenue, between 3rd and 12th streets NW.

While the main march is in Washington, others are planned across the country and as far away as Sweden.

For those who can’t make it to D.C., there is a March for Our Lives planned in Newport News. It will begin at 10 a.m. March 24 at Panera Bread on 12368 Warwick Blvd., and walk toward Patrick Henry Mall.

Citizens in Williamsburg are also planning a march. The event’s Facebook page said it will begin at 2 p.m. March 24 at the Colonial Capital building on Duke of Gloucester Street, and then walk down the street. Christine Payne, an organizer of the march, said it is being sponsored by Williamsburg Indivisible Group, Common Ground, Peninsula Indivisible and Moms Demand Action-Peninsula Group in coordination with student activists from the Williamsburg Unitarian Universalist Church.

Students from Stoneman Douglas are trying to get free flights to the march in D.C., but Mulholland said it is still up in the air.

She got involved in the March for Our Lives movement almost immediately after the shooting and said she is proud of the way her classmates are using their leadership skills and speaking to legislators.

“People say things like we are teenagers and we don’t know anything, and you know it’s frustrating,” Mulholland said. “But we do, obviously, know quite a bit.”

She said the reason she and her classmates are able to articulate themselves so well in this situation is because their school taught them how to make a difference in a respectful and intelligent manner.

“I’m friends with the people like Delaney Tarr and Emma Gonzalez. They are in my classes and I’ve known them for a while,” Mulholland said. “It is not even frustrating. It is sad and it is disappointing that people are making conspiracy theories and saying that my friends and the people that are speaking out are not who they say they and are paid actors because of our age.”

Despite the negative rumors and feedback from some, Mulholland is optimistic about the impact the March for Our Lives movement will have.

“The movement is something that is real and it is not going to go away," Mulholland said. “I personally think this mass school shooting will not be the last, but we will be able to change something.”

Want to know more?

Donate to March for Our Lives gofundme page at marchforourlives.com. Half of the donations will go toward the March for Our Lives demonstration, and the other half will provide relief and financial support to the victims and families of the shooting.

To find out where official walk-out events are being held around the country, visit womensmarch.com/enough.

There are more than 500 marches planned worldwide.

Amelia Heymann can be reached by email at aheymann@dailypress.com, or on twitter @HeymannAmelia.

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