2019 | Schools

‘Fighting for Change:’ 3,500 County Students Rally For Gun Reform

Walkout comes one year after similar demonstration that sparked review of civic engagement policy

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Thousands of students from Montgomery County rallied on Thursday, demanding stronger gun-control legislation and pleading for the end to school shootings “plaguing the United States.”

Local students walked out of schools after their first period classes, carpooled or walked to nearby public transit stations and gathered in front of the White House where they held 17 minutes of silence in honor of children killed by gun violence.

An estimated 3,500 students showed up, according to student leaders, surpassing estimates of a walkout on the same date a year ago, then touted as the largest the Montgomery school system has seen in decades.

Students from every Montgomery County high school participated Thursday, receiving an unexcused absence for missing class, and were joined by some students from Washington and Northern Virginia, receiving cheers and praise from onlookers as they marched down Pennsylvania Avenue. A school system spokesperson said it was unclear as of Thursday afternoon how many students received unexcused absences for attending the rally.

They marched and rallied in support of a bill moving through Congress that calls for universal background checks on all firearm purchases. The bill last month received approval from the House but isn’t expected to pass the Republican-majority Senate.

“We don’t have enough black clothes to go to all these funerals we have to go to for our friends who keep getting killed,” said Dani Miller, a Winston Churchill High School senior and co-founder of the student advocacy group Montgomery County Students for Change, which organized the walkout. “We have been failed by every single institution that’s supposed to protect us and … what am I supposed to think now about this country that has raised a generation fluent in mourning, that fails so many people over and over and continues to treat murdered children like just another Tuesday afternoon?”

After their demonstration at the White House, the group marched 2 miles to the Capitol and heard from about 15 speakers, including U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, a Democrat from Florida who introduced the universal background check legislation, Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat from Takoma Park, survivors of school shootings in Florida and Connecticut and student leaders.

Shaheera Jalil Albasit, an immigrant from Pakistan, spoke of her cousin, Shaheed Sabika Sheikh, who came to the United States as a foreign exchange student and was killed last May in a school shooting in Texas.

“She came here to see the best the United States has to offer, and she died seeing the worst,” Albasit said. “With this walkout, we’ve shown everyone in this country and around the world who discredits young people that our future is at stake and our time has come.”

In past walkouts, students have been reported to have been injured in fights, but Thursday’s event seemed to remain civil. Once, participants ushered a person heckling a speaker away from the demonstration, but kept other angry students away to prevent an altercation.

Thursday’s rally came one year after about 3,000 Montgomery students staged a walkout from classes and demanded gun control legislation following deadly shootings at schools in Southern Maryland and Florida.

Last year’s walkout sparked lengthy debates from top school officials about the system’s policy about activism and political engagement. Discussions have since stalled as board members debate how many days, if any, students should be allowed to miss school to attend civic activities, such as protests and lobbying.

The school system said in a statement prior to the event administrators do not support students leaving school to participate in protests.

Students, however, continue to participate in large- and small-scale walkouts, drawing them away from classes and many say they aren’t concerned about the consequences, calling it “good and necessary trouble.”

Eight-year-old Havana Chapman-Edwards was the lone student to walk out of her school in Alexandria, Virginia, during last year’s protest. On Thursday, she gave a speech that moved many to tears about her cousin, Tony, who was shot and killed at the age of 17. Chapman-Edwards said her parents are diplomats, so she’s lived in four countries and participated in dozens of lockdown and active shooter drills.

“I have seen with my own eyes when a gun is needed and necessary for my safety and when I am in danger because it is too easy to get a gun in America,” she said as she stood on a step stool to see over the podium. “As I travel the world, one city and one story at a time, I learn I don’t need to be a grown up before I start making a difference.”

Many of the speakers praised students who participated for putting pressure on lawmakers and encouraged them to keep going back to the White House and the Capitol until their demands are met.

“You should be having fun, having a normal childhood, a normal school experience, said Giselle Morch, the mother of Silver Spring’s Jon-Christian Kemachet-Webster, who was killed in July 2017 in his home in what police called a drug deal gone wrong. “Instead you’re here fighting for change.”

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