Students across Connecticut, nation walk out to honor Parkland shooting victims

Students across the country, including Connecticut, participated in rallies, marches and sit-ins, some in open defiance of their school districts in an organized effort to pressure lawmakers to act on gun control.

Connecticut walkouts

Jackson Mittleman opened a news alert on his phone on Valentine's Day, and saw a tragically familiar image: Students with their hands raised, fleeing a shooting.

It brought him back to December 14, 2012, when similar images from his hometown of Newtown, Connecticut, were broadcast around the country. On that day, his community joined what he calls a family "no one wants to be a part of."

Now the people of Parkland, Florida were joining it, too. His heart ached for the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High as he thought about what they were going through, and what lay ahead. "Is it ever going to stop?" he asked himself.

Related: Guilford students prepare for national school walkout

Mittleman was an 11-year-old sixth grader when a gunman killed 20 first graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary, two miles from his school -- a tragedy that changed the course of his life. Now 16, he's a gun control advocate who's joining the national school walkout on Wednesday that's part memorial and part protest.

"A message we're trying to send to Parkland is we stand behind them," said Jackson, co-chair of the Jr. Newtown Action Alliance, who is organizing the walkout at Newtown High School. "We are motivated and we are fired up to push as hard as they push and fight as long as they fight."
Students at Guilford High School also came out in droves in support of the national school walkout movement.

"This is just us one high school sending a strong message to our state and nationwide lawmakers that the youth movement for gun control extends far past south florida," say Guilford High School senior, Tyler Felson.

"We are trying to make sure that everyone can find their voice if they wish to," says Brendan O'Callahan, a senior at Guilford High School.

Adults and parents alike also came out to show support for the students.

“I felt it was a very american activity… peaceful protest," says Kathryn Westgard of Guilford. "These kids understand what is in jeopardy and they understand they have a voice, and it’s valuable in the community, and that makes me feel so proud.”

Lisa Kelly, a resident in Guilford, says her children are not yet students at the high school, but she still felt it was important to show support because her children will eventually be old enough to go to school.

"I wanted to show these students that they have our support," says Kelly. "To hear them across the way chanting and shouting enough is enough, to hear our students and our children telling us that, was a really really powerful moment that I will keep with me forever.”

In Hamden, chants of "this is what America looks like" and "enough is enough" filled the walkway in front of Hamden High School Wednesday as well over 100 students joined others across the state and nation in marking the one month mark since the Parkland, Florida mass school shooting.

Several students say they chose not to take part in the activities inside the school because they felt student voices should be heard in public.

"Now, I understand that there are some safety measures that have to be taken, but I don’t think boxing us in and to a gym inside the school where no one can see us is very effective measure," said Ava Kleinman, a Hamden High School freshman.

One student says he is not among those, who supports the push for stronger gun control.

"If you think about it, the criminals not really gonna follow the law," said Damien Chapelle, a Hamden High School Senior. "There just still going to get a gun somehow."

Ava Kleinman says her friends have had panic attacks following school massacres.

"I’ve had panic attacks " she added. "People are deathly afraid of going to school. Please ban guns - assault rifles."

Hamden's Police Chief, Thomas Wydra, who does not favor arming teachers, says he told students the best way to affect change is to register to vote, and let your voice be heard on each election day.

Security or criminalization?

In response to the Parkland shooting, the White House has proposed that some school personnel be provided with "rigorous" firearms training.

Student organizers behind the day of action said in a conference call Monday that they feared introducing more guns or police into schools could turn them into prisons, with dangerous consequences for students of color.

"Yes, we are standing in solidarity with the youth from the mass shooting, but we also know that the repercussions of what's going to happen next is going to land on black and brown students within low income communities," said Keno Walker with Power U Center for Social Change in Miami, a youth organization that is helping local high school students organize walkouts.

Several student activists said that having more police and enhanced security measures in schools would make them feel less safe.

Participants say they want to make sure that calls for change in the wake of Parkland take into account the broader context of gun violence in the United States. For D'Angelo McDade, a senior at North Lawndale College Prep High School in Chicago, gun violence is personal -- but not because of a shooting at school.

He was shot in the thigh as he sat on his front porch in the summer of 2017, leaving bullet fragments in his body, he said. As soon as he was released from the hospital, he started talking to his principal about ways to fight gun violence. On Wednesday, he plans to lead more than half of the school's 600 students on a walkout to converge with teens from other schools.

"Many of our community members and young adults have established a sense of hopelessness and normalized the suffering that comes with gun violence," he said. "But they're ready to see a change."

Andrea Colon, a senior at Rockaway Park High School for Environmental Sustainability in New York, said her school already has metal detectors and police officers. The impact is "dehumanizing," she said.

"It creates this sense of criminalization that no one really wants to feel," she said. "School is supposed to be a place where you go and feel safe, you feel supported, and that's not how you feel when you have to go through metal detectors, and you're patted down because you have too many bobby pins in your hair or because you didn't take your belt off and you have to be wanded."

"Instead of arming teachers with guns or adding more 'safety' or police, we want better school facilities, more mental health support, more school supplies and safety that does not involve the police," said Ilene Orgaz, a junior at KIPP Denver Collegiate in Colorado.

Security Students in Seattle-Tacoma, WA walk out of school in honor of Parkland shooting victims:

Penalties for walking out

Some school districts have said they will discipline students who participate in the walkouts.

Students who leave classes in New Richmond, Ohio, for example, will receive an "unexcused tardy," the district said. For students in Montgomery County, Maryland, walking out will count as an unexcused absence.

In the Atlanta suburb of Cobb County, Georgia, the school district said it will take disciplinary action -- ranging from Saturday school to five days' suspension per district guidelines -- against students who walk out, citing safety concerns.

The prospect has deterred some students, but not all of them, Pope High School senior Kara Litwin said.

"Change never happens without backlash," she said Tuesday. "This is a movement, this is not simply a moment, and this is only the first step in our long process."

Growing up in the shadow of gun violence

Students who planned to participate in the walkouts said they feel their generation has been profoundly shaped by the specter of gun violence. By raising their voices, they hope they will be the last kids to grow up with metal detectors and active shooter drills.

Sam Craig of Littleton, Colorado, was not alive during the 1999 Columbine High School shooting that put his hometown on the map. But the tragedy has shaped his life.

He grew up with school lockdown drills performed in the name of Columbine. His internship at Denver Zoo includes live shooter drills that include references to Columbine. He knows a teacher who was at Columbine during the shooting, who shares his view that school staff should not be armed, he said.

But the Chatfield High School junior said the community is stronger because of the shooting. People look out for each other because they don't want anyone to feel "pushed to the point of no return" like the Columbine shooters, he said.

Each year, the town comes together on the anniversary for a day of service, he said.

"We try to find that balance to make our community more connected and loving," said Craig, who is organizing the walkout at his school.

Abigail Orton, a junior at Columbine High School, said she was inspired to take action on Wednesday by the quick progress of the Parkland students.

"I am absolutely amazed at the amount that they've already accomplished, getting their voices out there and being able to speak on this so recently after the event, and to be able to use their status to start bringing about change," she said.

"I'm honored to be able to call this my generation and to be part of this movement."

Scott Wilson. CCDL President, said in a statement, "What has been lost so far in this debate is the fact that many generations have fought and died for our constitutional rights. One of these rights is our 2nd Amendment. This right of ours ensures protection from tyranny that could emerge from here at home, or abroad. While it is tremendous to see the next generation take an interest in societal discussions, it should be pointed out that every day, guns are used legitimately to stop  violent crime. The police simply cannot be everywhere, and often it is an average citizen with a gun that protects people from harm".