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Student walkouts marked by song, calls to action

aheymann@vagazette.com

A group of high school students stood silently in the cold morning wind, reflecting on the lives lost in a shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School Feb. 14. The only sound to break the air of mourning was members of the school’s chorus singing “Imagine” by John Lennon.

This was the scene at Jamestown High School Wednesday morning as students from across the Williamsburg-James City and York county school districts participated in a nationwide student walkout, standing in unity with students from Stoneman Douglas.

Jamestown High School

Nearly 300 Jamestown students gathered at the back of the school. Originally students were going to gather in front, where they had erected a memorial for the 17 people lost in the Stoneman Douglas shooting.

Lexi Solomon, a senior, said she was surprised by the turnout. She said more people showed up than were expected.

“I had a lot of friends that were at first apprehensive about doing the walkout because they thought it was about guns, but it was about more than that,” Solomon said. “It was really nice because I have a lot of friends who are not even necessarily for gun control, who went outside and were there to support the victims … It was about the school coming together as a whole to support the victims.”

The walkout was quiet and peaceful. Students had a long moment of silence for those killed in the shooting, after which the school chorus sang “Imagine” by John Lennon. Students listened quietly, letting the lyrics sink in.

When the clock struck 10:17 a.m., students calmly shuffled back inside to continue their school day.

Warhill High School

At Warhill, hundreds of students poured out into the school’s parking lot.

Sianna Ferguson, a Warhill student and one of the event’s coordinators, addressed the crowd of students along with her fellow organizers and Del. Michael P. Mullin (D-Newport News).

“I’m very excited and surprised at the participation,” said Ferguson.

Lauren Findlay, a senior, said the turnout gave her hope that the event would create an impact in the state’s gun law legislation.

“I know that we have the ability to create change in the area, and our voices together are so incredibly strong,” said Findlay.

During the protest, students stood with their heads low, with some linking their arms together or hugging one another. After a moment of silence, students stood solemnly as the names of the 17 people killed at Stoneman Douglas were read.

Along with coordinating the event, Ferguson and Findlay drafted a list of changes to state gun legislation that they would like to see happen in the General Assembly. The list includes stricter background checks at stores and gun shows, an increase of resources provided to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives and banning bump-stock devices.

Mullin said that many of the students’ demands were proposed as legislation in this year’s General Assembly session, but that they were all voted down.

“What’s sad is that four pieces of gun legislation were up in the General Assembly, and every one of them died in party line in subcommittee at 8:30 in the morning while most people were getting their coffee,” said Mullin. “There’s an answer to gun violence like this, we’re the only country in the world with this kind of problem.”

“We need to urge our representatives to make sure no threat is ignored,” said Findlay.

Lafayette High School

At least 70 students crowded the front entrance of Lafayette High School to stand in solidarity with students and victims of the Stoneman Douglas shooting. Several student speakers addressed their peers as others held aloft signs during the orderly 17-minute demonstration.

Toano Middle School

More than 200 Toano students joined the walkout, at least a half-dozen of them with signs. One of the signs said "Thoughts & prayers are never enough,” and another, in large block letters, said, "Never Again."

James City County Police put police tape and a marked car in front of the bus entrance to the school to block entry to the side where the students came out. The main entrance to the school was not blocked off, but James City County Police patrolled the school parking lot and drove along Richmond Road in front of the school several times before and during the walkout.

Hornsby Middle School

Hornsby Middle School students also joined in the walkout against gun violence with a demonstration in the area behind the school. During the 17-minute endeavor, the crowd chanted “Never again,” “No more violence” and “This is what democracy looks like.”

A Williamsburg police officer sat across the parking lot observing the event, which appeared to come and go without any issues.

On Feb. 27, the school dealt with a threat when a student threatened to do bodily harm on school property. The 14-year-old boy was later disciplined, and the incident appears to have had no impact on the walkout.

Berkeley Middle School

Betsy Overkamp-Smith, W-JCC spokeswoman, said Berkley Middle School’s principal, Panagiotis Tsigaridas, estimated 250 students participated in the walkout. Tsigaridas added there were no incidents at the protest.

William and Mary

Annailese Estes, a student at the college William and Mary, said about 300 people showed up to the college’s walkout at the Sunken Garden.

Estes said students stood in a long line in the garden to sign a poster for the students at Stoneman Doughlas. People wrote phrases like “You have an ally at William and Mary,” and “William and Mary stands with you.”

After signing the poster, she said students stood around until the time was over. The protest was mostly silent according to Estes, and used as a moment to honor the lives lost.

“It was really powerful just to see everyone standing here. We’re all the way in Virginia and (the shooting) was in Florida,” Estes said. “I saw walkouts in California, New York, at my own high school in rural Virginia, and it was just really cool to be a part of something where we’re finally saying ‘enough is enough.’”

Bruton High School

Not all York York County School Division schools allowed students to walk out of school, but those that did not had an alternative gathering where they could participate inside of the school. Members of the community and media were not allowed to attend or view the York schools activities, but, Katherine Goff, York County spokeswoman, said all middle schools and high schools held peaceful assemblies today.

“(The students) were very orderly and peaceful in following the structure the school had given them,” Goff said.

Goff said students at Bruton had a moment of silence for the people killed in the shooting, and wrote notes of their personal thoughts on the subject with chalk on the sidewalk. Goff estimated 200 students participated at Bruton and said once the gathering was over, all students returned to class.

James City County Police Deputy Chief Steve Rubino said the department and W-JCC had worked together ahead of time to make safety plans for the walkout. He said everything went smoothly and there were no reported incidents across the county.

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 were registered.

What’s next?

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.

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 Universalists.

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

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