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Local students protest gun violence with walkouts
CHS Walkout crowd, March 14 2018
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Credit: Josh Mandell, Charlottesville Tomorrow
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Josh Mandell | Wednesday, March 14, 2018 at 11:50 p.m.

Thousands of students walked out of class at local schools Wednesday morning to join a nationwide protest against gun violence.

“This movement is based on emotion. It is based on passion. And it is based on pain,” said Zyahna Bryant, a junior at Charlottesville High School.

At 10:00 a.m., about 700 CHS students filed out of the school building and gathered in a field next to the school’s parking lot.

Seventeen students lay on a slope above the field with their eyes closed, holding orange signs displaying the names of students and staff members killed in a Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Three more students stood nearby with Black Lives Matter signs.

“For the first time in a long time, the nation is listening to us,” Bryant said to her classmates through a megaphone. “What will we tell it?”

After brief speeches by student organizers and a minute of silence to honor the victims of the Parkland school shooting, the CHS students quietly returned to their classes. The 17 students who lay on the hill got to their feet. One was met with a tearful hug from a friend.

“I just had a moment where I saw my friend as dead,” a student said.

Both Charlottesville City Schools and Albemarle County Public Schools permitted students to leave class for the walkouts and did not mark them as late or absent if they returned when the events concluded.  

While local public schools did not encourage or discourage students from participating in the walkouts, Charlottesville superintendent Rosa Atkins said she hoped the protests would be used as a “teachable moment.”

“We hope we are teaching our students how to express their opinions in a democracy,” Atkins said.

Charlottesville City Councilor Mike Signer and School Board members Lisa Larson-Torres and Sherry Kraft were present for the walkout at CHS.

“I really felt the passing of the torch to this generation,” said Kraft. “I’m so proud of these kids. I don’t think they are going to give up.”

***

Bryant organized the CHS walkout with three seniors currently serving as student representatives on the Charlottesville School Board: Nadiya Khaydari, Fre Halvorson-Taylor and Lamia West.

The CHS walkout organizers communicated with student leaders at Albemarle County’s three comprehensive high schools to determine what message they wanted their protests to send.

The students ultimately decided to not demand specific legislation, and instead chose to focus on honoring victims of gun violence and broadly advocating for policy reforms to make schools safer.

“We tried to make it as bipartisan as possible,” Khaydari said.

“We want all students to be involved, to be active and take a stance in what they believe in,” said Camellia Pastore, a senior at Albemarle High School. “It is important for the four schools to come together and give a face to laws that people are making.”

Choetsow Tenzin, a senior at Albemarle, said the student activists worked closely with school principals to “create a safe way and a safe space to walk out.” At CHS, police officers closed traffic to the school 15 minutes before the protest began.

The high school walkout organizers acknowledged that some of their peers did not approve of the event.

Halvorson-Taylor said she had seen students suggest on social media that “making 17 friends” would be a better way to honor the Parkland victims than walking out of class for roughly 17 minutes. She said these comments ignored the critical role of protest in society— something she became more aware of after white supremacist rallies and counter protests took place in Charlottesville last year.

“I didn’t think I would have to convince people of the importance of protest after what happened last summer,” she said.

“We know there will be critics from outside and inside our schools,” Pastore said. “We want our message to be as airtight as possible, so we can be a unified, strong movement that goes somewhere. We want people to see us as a force.”

Halvorson-Taylor said about 200 CHS students were chartering buses to attend the March for Our Lives protest in Washington, D.C. March 24. The official website for the march includes a petition to ban the sale of assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, and to close loopholes in background check laws for gun purchases.

***

Several high school walkout organizers said they hoped their schools would do more to secure building entrances.

Albemarle County and Charlottesville have established controlled entrances at most schools that route visitors through the school’s main office and restrict direct access to classrooms.

Albemarle County has designated $2.9 million from a $35 million bond referendum in 2016 to build these entrances at Baker-Butler and Scottsville elementary schools, Henley Middle School, and Murray High School.

Dewey Cornell, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project, said schools are far less likely to experience a shooting than almost any other place.

“Kids are much more likely to be shot in a restaurant, store, parking lot, or even their own home than in a school,” Cornell said in an email to Charlottesville Tomorrow. “We have more than 300 shootings every day in the U.S. Far less than one percent of those shootings take place in a school.”

Halvorson-Taylor said many students of her generation would find little reassurance in these statistics, having already witnessed several horrific school shootings occur across America in their lifetime.

“In this case, whatever students are feeling is valid,” Halvorson-Taylor said. “You need to be in a safe environment to learn. You can’t learn when you have anxiety about getting hurt.”

Buford Middle School and Walker Upper Elementary School in Charlottesville also saw students participate in walkouts on Wednesday.

Phil Giaramita, spokesman for Albemarle County Public Schools, said an estimated 2,900 students participated in walkouts at the county’s high schools and middle schools. Albemarle High School’s demonstration was the largest, with about 700 students participating.

Charlottesville City Schools will host a community forum on school safety at 7:00 p.m. Thursday in the CHS “B” Commons. Dewey Cornell and Thierry Dupuis, Charlottesville’s Interim Chief of Police, will speak at the event.

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