Students 'walk out' across U.S. to call for end of gun violence

By Daniel Uria and Sara Shayanian  |  Updated March 14, 2018 at 4:00 PM
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March 14 (UPI) -- Thousands of students across the United States walked out of school Wednesday on the one-month anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.

More than 3,100 schools participated in solidarity with the Parkland, Fla., school where 17 students and faculty were killed by 19-year-old former student Nikolas Cruz, who opened fire on Valentine's Day with an AR-15 assault rifle.

In South Florida, at least 25 high schools and colleges joined the demonstration. At Stoneman Douglas, students gathered on the football field for a 17-minute walkout where the original song "Shine" composed by the drama club played.

At Cooper City High School, students gathered around 17 empty desks and released 17 doves.

Thousands more poured onto streets in New York City, where Mayor Bill De Blasio joined students at the Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo lay down side-by-side with students for a "die-in" protest at the Leadership and Public Service High School in Lower Manhattan.

"America's students can clearly see what the GOP cannot: Weak gun laws are at the heart of America's gun violence problem," Cuomo tweeted. "Proud to join the students at Leadership and Public Service High School."

In Washington, D.C., students clutched signs and gathered outside the White House and on Capitol Hill chanting "Enough is enough."

Other students chanted "Hey Hey NRA, how many kids have you killed today?" in D.C.

Students in Hoboken, N.J., chanted "I am a bullet-free zone" and carried signs reading "Chalk not Glocks." At Cherry Hill West High, another new jersey school, students laid out bags in the shape of a heart.

Students at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute laid down as a group on the football field.

In Los Angeles, students are expected to organize voter registration drives and moments of silence. Many will wear orange in honor of the Wear Orange campaign associated with National Gun Violence Awareness Day.

A Stoneman Douglas, student Sam Zeif marveled to CNN about a "sea of people everywhere. You can barely see the ground. It really shows us we're not alone."

Although some schools and districts threatened students with punishment for leaving class, students vowed to walk out anyway.

"I am worried about it, but I would rather fight for what's right than a little suspension," Sayreville County student Sydney Calder told CBS New York.

The nationwide walkout was organized by student members of Empower, the youth branch of the Women's March group.

"We are living in an age where young people like us do not feel safe in our schools. This issue is personal for all of us, especially for those of us who are survivors of gun violence," the group's website states. "We are walking out for ALL people who have experienced gun violence, including systemic forms of gun violence that disproportionately impact teens in black and brown communities."

The group is demanding that Congress "recognize all forms of gun violence" by passing new legislation to ban assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, expand background checks to all gun sales, implement a gun violence restraining order law and stop militarizing law enforcement.

Since the Parkland shooting, Florida Gov. Rick Scott has signed a $400 million suite of legislative reforms to school security, mental health and gun-control measures.

The law orders a ban on bump stocks, an increase to the minimum rifle purchasing age from 18 to 21 and a three-day waiting period on all firearm purchases.

Some of the money will be allocated to hire and train more school resource officers and mental health counselors and install extra safety equipment, like security cameras, metal detectors, bulletproof glass and automatic locking devices.

It also includes funding for an optional program to allow some school personnel -- like librarians and coaches, but not teachers -- to carry firearms on campus.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown also signed a law extending bans on firearm ownership to people convicted of domestic violence, even if the victim isn't a spouse, closing the so-called "boyfriend loophole."

The U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote this week on the STOP School Violence Act of 2018, the first major congressional vote on school safety since shooting.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a school safety hearing Wednesday at the Capitol.

Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina Petty was killed in the Douglas shooting, said Cruz was "the worst kept secret" in Parkland.

"The school officials knew, law enforcement knew, they didn't do anything about it," Petty said. "We need a change and the STOP School Violence Act will give us the change we need to make sure this doesn't happen again. We need to identify these troubled youths early and we need to interdict before they turn violent."

The bill doesn't include any gun provisions but would provide more training for school officials and local law enforcement to respond to mental health crises, as well as money to develop anonymous reporting systems for threats and deterrent measures like metal detectors and locks.

President Donald Trump's administration released its own list of proposals to improve school safety Sunday night, including "rigorous" firearms training for some school officials, support for a bill to strengthen background checks for gun purchasers and the creation of a task force to study school shootings.

The proposal didn't include support for raising the age limit to purchase certain firearms, which Trump earlier indicated he favored, but White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the idea was still being considered.

On Monday the Department of Justice introduced a package of directives from Attorney General Jeff Sessions calling for federal agencies to verify they are in full compliance with an existing law requiring them to report relevant records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and identify local jurisdictions that are failing to report arrests to their state repositories.

It also called on federal prosecutors to "swiftly and aggressively" prosecute people who are prohibited from possessing firearms but lie to deceive the federal background system when attempting to purchase one.

The DOJ also addressed mass shootings Saturday by proposing a regulation banning bump stock devices on firearms, which increase the firing rate of rifles. Bump stocks were used in the Las Vegas shooting last fall that killed 58 people attending a country music festival.

On Tuesday Broward County, Fla., prosecutors announced they will seek a death sentence against Cruz, who faces 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted first-degree murder.

Prosecutors declined defense attorney Howard Finkelstein's offer to have Cruz serve a sentence of life in exchange for a guilty plea to the 34 grand jury charges, citing the "heinous, atrocious and cruel" nature of the crimes and the "cold, calculated and premeditated way" it was handled.

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