SOUTH RIDING, Va. — Noon time at Freedom High School usually means the beginning of lunch in the cafeteria. But at the lunch bell Wednesday, dozens of students spilled out onto the track instead, walking silently for 17 minutes in the bitter cold to commemorate the lives lost in the Parkland, Florida school shooting last month.
The students at Freedom were two and a half hours late to Wednesday’s main event: thousands of students nationwide walked out of school at 10 a.m. in the same commemorative spirit, but their demonstrations included a political protest for students to voice their support for gun reform legislation.
School systems in the U.S. struggled to address the walkouts. Some took a neutral position, neither encouraging nor opposing the demonstrations. Others told students they would face consequences should they join the walkout because it would interfere with instruction time and presented safety concerns. Loudoun County Public Schools, Freedom’s school division, was among the latter group.
The LCPS website states that the school system does not support walkouts or other activities that disrupt school or create an unsafe environment for students. Students who disregard this policy and leave class without permission will receive the appropriate disciplinary action, officials said.
Even so, walkouts were reported at five of the other county high schools, including one with over 200 students at Rock Ridge High School. Students who chose to participate could get punished with detention, officials said. Briar Woods, another local high school where students walked out, said their guidance was to follow the County policy and continue instruction as usual.
In the neighboring school district, Fairfax County Public Schools, students were allowed to walk at 10 a.m. with no consequences. The official county policy was that walkouts were neither endorsed nor prohibited.
Freedom High School students partnered with the school’s administration, though, and settled on a solution that allowed them to silently honor the lives of the Parkland victims without compromising the safety of their peers.
“We didn’t want to get shut down by the administration because my friends at Tuscarora [High School] did,” said L.J. Garcia, a senior at Freedom and a leader of the student movement. “We wanted to find a midway point with the faculty.”
Tuscarora, another high school in the county, walked out at 10 a.m. this morning. According to Garcia, the students at Tuscarora were not able to create an alternative form of action like the walk at Freedom because the administration was unwilling to collaborate with them.
Freedom Principal Doug Fulton said that students at other schools specifically walked out in order to oppose the stated county policy. “We wanted to avoid that,” said Fulton.
During the walk around at Freedom, Garcia wore an orange t-shirt that read “Never Again: Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,” and had all the names and ages of the victims written with a black sharpie on the back. He and Ellery Broga, a senior at Freedom and organizer of the walk around, handed out orange and maroon ribbons to students who joined the event at lunch.
Garcia and Broga also encouraged students to sign a banner they plan to send to the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
Broga said she hopes peaceful rallies like the ones across high schools on Wednesday encourage discussions around topical issues like gun reform. In the past month, Broga said she has been able to sway the conservative views of some members of her “Southern, very Republican” family by reminding them how these issues affect them personally.
“I’ve got relatives in Colorado who are die-hard with their guns,” Broga said. “When the video of me speaking about how I felt about the situation surfaced on Facebook, and they realized that it’s not random kids on TV, it’s their own granddaughter who’s scared about it, they switched.”
Lawmakers in Washington are not likely to respond to the students’ demands soon. Last week, Florida raised the minimum age to purchase firearms to 21, but President Donald Trump abandoned his promise to impose stricter gun control measures opposed by the National Rifle Association on Monday.
Broga said the movement “is reminding people that, yes, it’s been a whole month, but students … are still impacted by it, so much so that they are willing to … go outside in the cold and walk around just to make a statement.”
Wednesday’s student walkouts took place just 10 days before the March for Our Lives rally is scheduled to occur in Washington, D.C. and countless U.S. cities and town. More students, including 78 so far from Loudoun County, are expected to gather in Washington and protest for gun control. More walkouts are planned on April 20, which marks the 19-year anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting.
Garcia and Broga said they hope to plan a student rally in front of the NRA Museum in Fairfax, or alternatively in front of Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock’s office in Loudoun County. Comstock represents Virginia’s 10th district and opposes restricting guns or the right to bear arms.
“The topic, unfortunately, is never really going to die,” Broga said. “We are remembering MSD … but also every other shooting that has happened and every other shooting that’s going to happen until change is made.”