In the months after a gunman opened fire at a high school in Parkland, Florida, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas have refused to quiet their calls for gun control. Now, their activism is galvanizing support among students across the country — especially those who have never experienced gun violence close to home. Thousands of young people are demonstrating their commitment to changing the nation's gun laws by launching a National School Walkout Day on March 14, one month after the Parkland shooting.
"I kind of put myself in the place of the kids at Parkland's shoes," Madeline Paterna, a junior at Midwood High School in Brooklyn tells Bustle. She's a leader of Wednesday morning's National School Walkout Day in her school. "I was wondering if maybe they had the same thought that I did: 'Oh, school shooting, that's never going to happen to us'... It just made me feel kind of naive for feeling that."
Paterna says she knows that Florida's gun laws are more lax than those in her home state, but as she shares in the Parkland student's activism, she says she can't help feeling a shared risk.
"It's not going to stop anyone from bringing a gun into our school," she says of the current laws, "and it [makes] me kind of scared."
More than 400 people have been shot in more than 200 school shootings around the country since the Dec. 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. But where the past few years have fallen victim to the same cycle — grief, outrage, inaction — this time appears different. By empathizing with the Parkland students, high schoolers around the country are identifying not only with a group that's fallen victim to a tragic shooting, but also with a group that's rising above tragedy and demanding change. Simply put, it's inspiring them to do the same.
For Paterna, the turning point came when she watched the Parkland students meet with President Trump at the White House the week after the shooting. "I remember thinking to myself, wow, these kids are pretty amazing for speaking up for what they believe in," Paterna says, "especially against someone like Trump, who has conservative views about gun control."
"I just thought it was really amazing to see kids my own age speak out," Paterna adds.
Paterna and her friend took a page out of the Parkland students' book and began organizing their own school's National School Walkout Day. The protest movement — one of at least three major demonstrations taking place this spring — is expected to touch some 2,500 schools across the country on Wednesday.
At Midwood High School in Brooklyn, 17 student volunteers will read the names of each Parkland victim, along with a paragraph about each person's life. Paterna is expecting some 250 students to show up. That's a small share of the school's 4,000-strong student body, but she says it's a start.
"It's actually way more than we thought we would have originally," Paterna says.
She and a friend who's also coordinating the walkout are working with school administrators to make sure the protest goes smoothly — the school has asked teachers not to stop students from leaving the building, and the NYPD will be on hand to make sure that everyone is safely crossing the street to an adjacent schoolyard.
"Some of the teachers have been really cool about it, and they've been talking to their class about it, which makes me feel really good," Paterna says. "We sort of got people talking about gun control and why it's so important and raising awareness. ... It's very empowering to us."
While protests like the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. on March 24th are geared toward demanding policy prescriptions like universal background checks and an assault weapons ban, the school walkouts planned for March 14 and April 20 (the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting) have more modest goals. Paterna says she and her friend are intent on honoring the lives lost in Parkland and stirring up support for tougher gun laws among their classmates.
"This year there's been so many shootings, not just school shootings, and it just kind of proves that the gun laws aren't strong enough in America and it's going to happen again if we don't do something about it," Paterna says. "I think it'll definitely send a message that we have voices and we're not going to be silenced anymore and we're going to stand up and fight for what we believe in."