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'I don't want to be shot': Thousands of Philly-area students participate in national school walkout

"We have a nation of youth who know how to turn their rage into productivity," a Central High School junior said.

Maayan Kaplan (center), 16, was one of over 1,000 Central High students who walked out of class to protest gun violence Wednesday.
Maayan Kaplan (center), 16, was one of over 1,000 Central High students who walked out of class to protest gun violence Wednesday.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

They poured out of classrooms Wednesday, armed with signs and bullhorns and a righteous anger: thousands of Philadelphia-area students joining with millions of their peers around the country, protesting gun violence and vowing to keep up the pressure until change comes.

"We have a nation of youth who know how to turn their rage into productivity," said Makiyah Adams, 17, a junior at Philadelphia's Central High, looking out onto a sea of her classmates who gathered on the school's lawn to commemorate the 17 students and staff killed Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

For 17 minutes, Cherry Hill High School West students circled the school's track, then regrouped inside to hear speeches. At Penn Alexander Elementary, a K-8 in West Philadelphia, even the kindergartners formed a peace sign with their bodies to show their hopes for the world. At Lower Merion High School in Montgomery County, at least two-thirds of the 1,300-student body gathered outside to talk about their fears and frustrations growing up in an era with so many mass shootings.

"From 2000 to 2010, the amount of school shootings that occurred in America was equal to the amount of school shootings that occurred over the same time period in 35 countries combined," said Lower Merion junior Lily Kemler, 16. "This is absolutely horrifying and completely unacceptable, even more so because we have always had the power to put an end to this madness."

The actions were grassroots and virtually all student-organized. Some lasted for 17 minutes, and some for much longer. At Central High School, Timothy McKenna, the school's president (as its principals are known), said before the action that he had no idea how many would walk out. More than 1,000 of its nearly 2,400 students did.

"We're just here to support the students," said McKenna. "Leaders take action when it is necessary, and they're taking action."

At each school, the students' words and demands varied. Some called for stricter gun laws. Others argued passionately against arming teachers, as President Trump has called for. In Philadelphia, a coalition of youth organizing groups said they want a divestment from school police officers, more mental and emotional health services, more guidance counselors and social workers in schools, and "gun control that does not result in targeted policing of black and brown bodies."

After Central students read short biographies of each of the victims of the Parkland shooting,  junior Cassidy Arrington, joined by her friend Adams, grabbed a microphone and read a spoken-word piece the two had written.

"My right to live is more important than your right to carry," Arrington said.

Schools and districts handled the protests differently. At Council Rock High School North in Bucks County, students were warned they would be disciplined if they walked out; hundreds did anyway. In Philadelphia, the school system gave students space to gather "so that any walkouts would take place in an organized and safe manner," but took the position of neither encouraging nor discouraging walkouts and not punishing students if they chose to participate.

Officially, students were expected back in class after the walkout, but more than 1,000 city students made their way to the Philadelphia School District's Center City headquarters and then to City Hall, shutting down a stretch of North Broad Street along the way.

"I know I'm not capable of doing much, but this is something," said Ida Ghohestani, 17, a junior at Masterman. "I couldn't sit in a classroom."

(Philadelphia officials said students who did not return to class after their school walkouts would simply be marked absent. Those who wanted to go back to school after the citywide event were welcome to do so.)

Vivian Seal, 17, a senior at Saul High School in Roxborough, missed a test and ran to catch a SEPTA bus to City Hall. She wanted to stand with teens from around the city.

Seal bubbled over with frustration and the sense that a movement was forming.

"It's so dumb," she said. "Kids are getting shot all over the country because it's too easy to get guns. We just have to do something."

The City Hall crowd was large and diverse: students of many colors, students from traditional public schools, charters, and private schools. There was a young woman on crutches, a young man toting a guitar on his back. There were students learning English, students with sophisticated signs they spent hours making, and some with ripped-out pieces of notebook paper bearing messages they had scrawled hastily.

"Hold hands, not guns!" the students shouted. "The NRA is not OK!"

Some students were joyous, snapping selfies and seeking out media. Others were solemn, weighed down by the memory of 17 students and teachers they had never known but somehow now felt connected to.

"That could have been us," Jeremiah Butler, 15, a sophomore at Science Leadership Academy, said of the Parkland deaths. "They were normal kids, like us."

Mariam Timbo, a junior at Franklin Learning Center in the city's Spring Garden neighborhood, walked out for a simple reason, she said.

"I don't want to be shot," said Timbo, 15.

Though students were the focus of the day, in various locations, they had adults supporting them.

A handful of Lower Merion residents showed up at the high school to endorse the action.

"This country really depends on these students," said Jenette Wheeler, a physician who worked at the district for 10 years. She and other adults were eventually asked to leave by school officials; they relocated to Montgomery Avenue to cheer on the teenagers.

Jacquie Mahon, who lives in Roxborough, wasn't even sure where Central High was (it's in Logan, on West Olney Avenue) but she found it because she wanted to make a stand.

"I wish more people came down to support this," said Mahon.

At City Hall, Councilwoman Helen Gym and State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) addressed the crowd, much of which could barely hear them.

"We need you to be the ones to change the world," Hughes told the crowd. "The adults have failed you. We need you to shut it down."

All around, students seemed excited and emboldened by the turnout to their actions and the reception they received.

"If enough of us take a stand, we can make a change," said Isaiah Pressley, 17, a sophomore at Roman Catholic High School who walked to City Hall for the protest there.

"This feels bigger than us, and bigger than today," said Zeniah Navas, 16, a sophomore at Science Leadership Academy. "That's why we're all here."

Staff writer Avalon R. Zoppo and columnist Helen Ubiñas contributed to this article.