Junior Lily Lehman says, thanks to administrators and school resource officers, she feels safe at Northern High School in Durham.
But a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, last month made it clear for her that that could change at any moment.
“There’s always that possibility,” she says. “I’m sure the students in Florida felt safe until one day when seventeen of their classmates were dead. It could obviously be safer if I knew that a troubled nineteen-year-old didn’t have an AR-15.”
Lehman was one of the student organizers of a walkout held at Northern High Wednesday as part of National School Walkout Day, organized by Women’s March Youth Empower to protest gun violence in all its forms and call on legislators to take meaningful action.
“Listen to us. Take us seriously,” said senior Chloe Baker, who also organized the Northern High event. “I’ve heard a lot of people saying ‘we shouldn’t be listening to these kids, they’re just kids.’ Well, we’re the people who are going to replace you in office. We’re coming, so you should listen to us now.”
Several hundred Northern High School students walked out onto the school’s football field at ten a.m., as students in more than three thousand schools nationwide planned to do today. They had a moment of silence and read the names of each student and staff member murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School one month ago.
“We were trying to spread support for each other,” said Baker, “These kids were our age that died in Florida and I think it’s a huge issue that we’ve not had a chance to speak out about a lot. With the momentum from the kids in Parkland I feel like it was important that we had our own movement here and had our voices heard here.”
A handful of students who wanted to commemorate the lives lost in Parkland, but not necessarily join calls for tighter gun restrictions, stood by on the track while students and legislators made remarks. Lehman told the crowd that while Americans have the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment, “that right comes with great responsibility” and “gun control doesn’t equate to gun confiscation.”
Sen. Mike Woodard and Rep. Marcia Morey, both of whom represent Durham in the state legislature, told students they support them and they are listening.
Most people see something and do nothing, Morey said, but students are stepping up.
“You are all here with other students across this country at this very moment because you are our leaders and you have the compassion to care about other people,” she told the crowd.
Adults have failed to take action in the twenty years since thirteen people were killed in a shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, Woodard said.
“Turn this into action,” he told student organizers, imploring them to write to legislators and make their voices heard in Raleigh.
Majory Stoneman students have electrified the national conversation about gun control since the February 14 shooting. Under pressure from this movement, Florida lawmakers raised the age to buy a firearm to 21, among other measures. In North Carolina, Rep. Rodney Moore is proposing a similar measure raising the age to buy rifles, WRAL reports. Students have taken the National Rifle Association to task and swayed public opinion on gun control.
“Because this is a prevalent problem in America right now it needs to be addressed and I feel like after the momentum of the Parkland shooting that now is the best time to do it,” Lehman said. “This generation is most likely to be the change.”
Lehman and Baker said they’d like to see more thorough background checks to purchase firearms, and restrictions placed on automatic weapons. Baker said she plans to attend the March For Our Lives in Washington D.C. on March 24, which was organized by Parkland students.
“All of our voices are powerful but they have a particular power behind their voice because they saw this happen. They saw their classmates on the ground,” she said. “So, just tirelessly supporting them is what’s next for me.”
Morey, a former District Court judge, is proposing gun violence restraining orders in North Carolina, which would allow judges to temporarily take guns from people believed to pose a safety threat. On Wednesday, she told students she is making that proposal because “I heard your voices.”
In a statement, DPS acknowledged the walkouts and said “the DPS administration shares our students’ concern over the threat of gun violence in our nation.”
“When mass movements or nation-wide student-led protests happen, our highest priorities are first to ensure student safety and then to minimize disruption of the school day. Our principals opened dialogues with our students to help them find safe ways of expressing their thoughts so they could then return to the classroom,” said spokesman Chip Sudderth.
Northern High School Principal Dan Gilfort said on Twitter the walkout was peaceful.
Steve Unruhe, vice chair of the Durham Board of Education, watched the walkout along with media in a staging area across the street. His daughter teaches at the school. He said he’s proud of students for taking the lead, but “it’s sad that we have to do this at all.”
“Every morning they walk out your door and the prayer every parent says is that they come back safely,” he said. “I’d prefer we were more worried about driving and so on than about guns, but our reality is that guns are now something every kid thinks about.”
Given state and federal law, Unruhe says he’s not sure what Durham can do to strengthen gun measures. The Board of Education is expected to consider a draft resolution calling on state and federal legislators to enact gun policy reform at its March 22 meeting.
“Our generation really failed to protect our young people … Our children are saying to us ‘we’re not safe’ and they’re not safe,” he said. “We clearly have failed to do what we need to do.”