Credit: PHOTO VIA MOCO STUDENTS FOR CHANGE

Montgomery County students are planning to walk out of school next month in what they hope will be the “final push” to encourage national lawmakers to require universal background checks for gun purchases, but school officials are urging them to stay in class.

On the one-year anniversary of a similar walkout including about 3,000 students from county schools rallying for stronger gun control legislation, Montgomery County Students For Change on Monday announced plans for another walkout, building on what they felt was success from last year.

The walkout is scheduled for Thursday, March 14, when students will leave classes at about 10 a.m. and ride the Metro to the White House, where they’ll hold 17 minutes of silence to honor the 17 people who died in a mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last year. Students then plan to march to the Capitol.

“Doing it on the same day shows it wasn’t just a moment in time, it’s a movement,” said Montgomery County Students for Change co-founder Dani Miller. “It shows that a year later we’re still here because students are still dying to gun violence.”

The focus of the walkout will center around national legislation that advanced last week that would require universal background checks for gun purchases – one of the group’s demands in the last walkout, which was a smaller part of a nationwide demonstration.

The legislation has garnered widespread support from Democrats, but few Republicans have voiced approval. Supporters say increased background checks would deter future mass shootings.

“This bill would save lives if it passes, and if it doesn’t, we may never get the same chance again, so we really need to do everything we can in our power to make sure this passes, and I think … if we bring as many students, or more, this time, maybe it will be enough public pressure to sway the Senate’s vote,” said Miller, a senior at Winston Churchill High School.

Last year’s walkout sparked lengthy debates from top school officials about the system’s policy about activism and political engagement.

The school board shortly after began discussing the policy with proposed amendments that would allow up to three excused absences each school year to participate in civic activities, like protests and lobbying.

Missing class to participate in walkouts is considered an unexcused absence as the policy stands now, and school board members anticipate that standard will remain when the policy is updated.

“We think students should be involved in civic activities, but you just can’t walk out of school,” said District 1 board member Judy Docca. “If something happens, the principals are ultimately blamed by some parents, and I know many are nervous about that.”

Before last year’s walkout, Superintendent Jack Smith sent a letter to community members encouraging students to not participate, largely for safety reasons.

“While we continue to 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,” he wrote. “MCPS does not have the staff or resources to ensure students are safe during the school day when they are not on a school campus.”

A school spokesperson on Monday said the school system’s opinion remains the same and student walkouts are discouraged, not because of what the walkout is for, but because it is a liability issue for the school district.

Miller said she doesn’t believe administration’s opposition to the movement will deter the majority of students from participating.

“The movement is important and students in Montgomery County are really passionate about this, and at the end of the day, the students will do what’s right, and what’s right is we’re out here trying to save lives,” Miller said. “We’re so close to getting what we want, the walkout is the final push to make it happen. We can’t just be satisfied with a bill being proposed – we won’t be satisfied until it’s passed.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com