Michael Solomon of Springbrook High School speaks to fellow students. Credit: Bethany Rodgers

For 17 minutes on Wednesday, hundreds of Montgomery County students sat fanned out in front of the White House in complete silence, speaking only through the expressions on their faces, the clenched fists they raised and the backs they turned to the presidential complex.

They’d come to D.C. carrying their messages to the world on handmade signs.

“This Ends Now.”

“How Many More?”

“Our Blood. Your Hands.”

Montgomery County Public Schools estimates that 2,500 students left their classes to demonstrate for gun control on the one-month anniversary of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The students joined young people across the nation in observing a time of silence at 10 a.m. in remembrance of the 17 students and staff who died in the Valentine’s Day attack.

During the 17 minutes of silence, students raise signs bearing the names of Parkland victims. Bethany Rodgers.

Then, despite the cold and wind, the students from Montgomery County and elsewhere in the D.C. area rallied, declaring that the growing youth crusade for more gun control will follow in the tradition of the suffrage and civil rights movements.

“I want everyone to know that all of us will join their ranks in the history books because we will remain persistent until there is change,” Michael Solomon, a sophomore at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, said to the crowd gathered at the U.S. Capitol.

“If you can speak, speak. If you can march, march. And when you can vote, vote,” said Brenna Levitan, a student organizer from Montgomery Blair High School, also in Silver Spring.

Montgomery County teens last month descended on D.C. to march for gun control legislation, and the group that gathered Wednesday cheered loudly when asked if they would return for the March 24 demonstration planned by Parkland survivors.  That march is expected to draw as many as 500,000 people, according to published reports.

Students sit in silence outside the White House on Wednesday. Bethany Rodgers.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon, offered some advice to the young activists on Wednesday.

“Never give up. Never give out. Never give in. Keep the faith and keep your eyes on the prize. You’re going to win, and when you win, we’re all going to win,” Lewis (D-Georgia) said.

The protest was coordinated by local teens in the group MoCo Students for Gun Control, who encouraged their peers to come to D.C. en masse to pressure the nation’s leaders to take action. In recent days, the plans grew to include students attending schools in other parts of Maryland, the District and Virginia.

The demonstration led by the Montgomery County high schoolers generated national media coverage and social media shout-outs from students who survived the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.

Early Wednesday morning, students filed out of their school buildings, many waving signs and chanting, and walked to the nearest Metro station or boarded buses to travel downtown.

After the sit-in outside the White House, the crowd of students streamed toward the Capitol chanting, “This is what democracy looks like,” and, “No more silence. End gun violence.”

Some felt outrage because of their belief that federal inaction on enacting stricter gun control laws means lawmakers value gun owners’ right to bear arms over the lives of children.

“Their right to own an assault rifle does not outweigh our right to live,” Matt Post, student member of the Montgomery County school board. “The adults have failed us. This is in our hands now.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, and Rep. Ted Deutch, a Democratic congressman representing the Florida district that includes Parkland, addressed the sea of students spread over the Capitol lawn. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) also made an unexpected appearance that elicited roars from the crowd.

“I just want to thank all of you for your courage and for your intelligence and for leading the nation in the right direction,” he said.

For students such as Rowan Mohan, the decision to march stemmed from the idea that children should be able to learn in safety.

“I think all people should be able to go to school and not be afraid,” said Mohan, a sophomore from Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda.

While county school board members and parents have voiced pride in the action taken by local students, MCPS leadership has discouraged them from walking out of school to attend demonstrations. A number of principals on Wednesday organized alternatives that would allow students to express themselves while staying on campus. Some planned to hold moments of silence or permit students to walk around the school building, an MCPS spokeswoman said.

Administrators at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville let middle and high school students leave their classes for 17 minutes to honor the Parkland victims. Students who wanted to go to the protests downtown were excused if they had written permission from their parents, according to a news release.

Students walk out and gather in front of Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Bethesda on Wednesday. Courtesy photo.

MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith earlier this week sent out a community message stating that students would receive unexcused absences if they participate in the walkout to D.C.

“While we support student advocacy, we want students who choose to engage in the civic process to do so while at school, in a learning environment that is supportive and safe,” Smith wrote.

An MCPS spokeswoman said to the school system’s knowledge, all students returned safely from Wednesday’s protest.

Rowan said her school was giving students excused absences if they turned in permission slips from their parents in advance of Wednesday’s march. And, to a swell of cheering, Sen. Richard Blumenthal told the students he thinks they should get credit for showing up in D.C.

“If it were up to me, I would give every one of you an ‘A.’ America owes you an ‘A,’” said Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut.

Scenes from the demonstration. Credit: Bethany Rodgers and Amanda Perelli.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.