Texas students protest gun violence after Florida school shooting

Hundreds of Texas students have engaged in walkouts following a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead. Students said this response is largely due to the example Parkland survivors have been setting.

Alexa Mesch holds a rose before placing it next to one of the crosses placed in front of the fence of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to commemorate the victims of the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 21, 2018.  REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

"This could've happened to me."

That was what 18-year-old Aidan Smith says was going through his mind as he followed news of the Florida school shooting that took 17 lives.

Smith, a high school senior in McKinney, said he was deeply saddened — but not surprised. Since the 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, there have been at least 239 school shootings nationwide.

But within days of the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, student survivors such as Emma González and David Hogg became vocal advocates for gun control, trending on social media and organizing protests.

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Seeing that, Smith said, was inspiring.

Smith was one of 670 McKinney High School students to walk out of class Wednesday. While chanting “no more violence,” “never again” and “17,” the students marched and pumped their fists into the air as administrators monitored the situation for safety risks.

The McKinney walkout was just one of numerous student actions in Texas. Nearly 500 students at three Austin-area districts participated in walkouts as well, the Austin American-Statesman reported. Students said the activity seen in Texas schools is largely due to the example Parkland survivors have been setting.

“We often see something like this happen but don’t really see any of the actual victims talk,” Smith said. “This time around, all of their tweets and all of their messages have really reached other high school students, who now feel like they too have a voice.”

Dripping Springs Independent School District was one of the Austin-area districts that held a walkout Wednesday. Riley Ruchti, a senior at Dripping Springs High School, helped organize the demonstration, which drew roughly 300 people and included speeches and prayers for the Parkland victims.

“Our walkout was not an anti-gun protest. It was nonpartisan,” Ruchti said. “It was created first and foremost to stand with Parkland students, who gave us the courage to say that even though we didn't agree with each other on what exactly should happen, we wanted something to happen. And we wanted to be taken seriously.”

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The Wednesday demonstrations were the first of three planned nationwide events. The next is scheduled for March 14, the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting, and the final walkout is set for April 20 for the 19-year anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado, which left 13 people dead. Separately, a March 24 rally to stop school shootings is being planned in various communities, including in Austin. 

While administrators worked with McKinney and Dripping Springs students in their demonstrations, other district officials have expressed concerns.

On Tuesday, the superintendent of Needville ISD in the Houston-area Fort Bend County threatened to suspend students who take part in demonstrations against gun violence during school hours.

“The Needville ISD is very sensitive to violence in schools including the recent incident in Florida,” Superintendent Curtis Rhodes wrote in a statement posted on Facebook and sent to families in the district. “A school is a place to learn and grow educationally, emotionally and morally. A disruption of the school will not be tolerated.”

In Dallas ISD, some district officials and administrators at Booker T. Washington High School were hesitant to support a walkout due to safety risks, said Chet Monday, a senior at the high school.

Monday is one of the students planning a large walkout with other schools in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on April 20. He said he is working with district officials to submit permits, request police presence and ease concerns. 

Still, the demonstration will be completely student-led, like most others in the state. Representatives from advocacy groups such as Moms Demand Action and Texas Gun Sense said they will only be lending a hand with logistics and won’t make any final decisions.

While students said they will keep participating in the March and April nationwide demonstrations, they hope to continue the discussion beyond that. Many are pursuing other avenues, such as urging their representatives to take action and encouraging their peers to vote. 

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“I think we’re all scared, and we’re definitely judged by our age,” Monday said. “People think we don't have enough experience or know what we're talking about. But this is our issue, so we have to deal with it.”