Thousands of Bay Area Students Join National Walkout to End Gun Violence

Students from Oakland Technical High School stand up against gun violence on March 14, 2018, one month after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, killed 17. (Samantha Shanahan/KQED)

Updated at 2:40 p.m.

Thousands of students across the Bay Area and California joined a nationwide school walkout Wednesday to protest gun violence and to press for stricter gun laws, exactly one month after a mass shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school left 17 dead.

Organizers estimate nearly 3,000 walkouts, sit-ins and other forms of protest were planned across the U.S. following the Valentine's Day massacre of 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Students at Oakland Technical High School began to gather on the front lawn of the campus as early as 8:30 a.m., organizing and making signs. Hundreds began streaming out of the school at 10 a.m.

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Following 17 minutes of remembrance for the 17 Parkland victims, student activists led chants of "Enough is enough."

"Youth happen at the forefront of almost every social movement in American history, and real change starts with young people. Gun violence is a youth issue, a youth injustice, and it is a human rights issue," said 14-year-old Oakland Tech freshman and walkout organizer Maxwell Stern.

"Our politicians in Washington and across the country have perpetuated a vicious cycle of lip service and inaction," Stern said to the crowd. "Thoughts and prayers are no longer good enough. Action must be taken on stricter gun control."

The Oakland Unified School District wrote on KQED News' Facebook page, "We are so proud of these Tech students and OUSD students across the city for organizing, taking action and using their collective voice to create change!"

Students at Encinal High School in Alameda stood side by side, holding signs that spelled out "Never Again." Protesters chanted "No more silence, end gun violence" and "We want change." Others carried signs reading "Too many empty promises. Stop the bullets. Save the kids" and "Do not underestimate our generation."

“I’m participating because how many students have to die before the NRA and Congress realize that nobody should be able to buy military-style assault rifles," said 18-year-old Encinal High School senior Gabby Gustafsson. "We can’t wait around anymore on empty promises.”

At Lowell High School in San Francisco, students left campus and began a march to Civic Center, where they met up with hundreds of other students from around the city.

"Older generations think that we're desensitized with all the technology, which to a certain extent may be true," Lowell High School student Devyn Gallagher said. "But I think with this specific movement, we're really proving ourselves and showing that our generation isn't desensitized and we're actually making a difference."

In the Central Valley, more than 200 students walked out of Delano High School. Students not only spoke about gun violence and gun safety, but also about the importance of mental health services at the school.

"Change is coming, and we want to be a part of it," senior Adrian Torres said.

In Los Angeles, several hundred high school students from the Miguel Contreras Learning Center joined the national protest in support of tighter gun control regulations. Contreras is just blocks away from Salvador Castro Middle School where a 12-year-old girl brought a handgun to campus last month. The gun accidentally discharged, injuring two teenagers. A smaller group of students broke off from the rally and took to the streets. But they only marched around the school. A spokesperson for the school confirmed that the students came back to class -- as did the hundreds who joined today’s rally.

Twenty California Assembly members also joined in solidarity with students at the state Capitol and walked out. "Assemblymembers participating in this event will join the thousands of other supporters walking out to honor the victims and support the student-led efforts for change," a media release said.

The coordinated walkout was organized by Empower, the youth wing of the Women's March, which brought thousands to Washington, D.C., last year. The group urged students to leave class at 10 a.m. local time for 17 minutes -- one minute for each victim in the Florida shooting.

A Mixed Reaction From School Administrators Across the U.S.

The planned protests drew mixed reactions from school administrators across the nation. While some applauded the students for taking a stand, others threatened discipline.

Oakland Technical High School supported the student protest, and Principals Staci Ross-Morrison and Josue Diaz posted to the school's website: "Here at Oakland Tech we fully support our students’ First Amendment rights, and we will be helping amplify their voices on March 14."

They encouraged students at the school to stay on campus and to sit in on the school's front lawn for the 17-minute moment of silence. They said they would encourage students to register to vote, write letters to the nation's officials and listen to community members speak about gun violence.

West Contra Costa Unified School District Superintendent Matthew Duffy left a voicemail message with parents Tuesday night that he wanted students to stay in school.

"We are encouraging students to stay on campus. The safety of our students is our utmost importance and the safest place for our students to engage civically around gun violence is on campus," Duffy's message said.

"We will encourage our students to stay on campus and use their voice in spaces, events, and actions at school. Principals, teachers, and school staff are working to provide safe spaces for our students to observe the 17 minutes of action at 10 am to honor of the 17 Parkland victims," Duffy also wrote in an email.

But districts in Sayreville, New Jersey, and Maryland's Harford County drew criticism this week when they said students could face punishment for leaving class.

In suburban Atlanta, one of Georgia's largest school systems announced that students who participate might face unspecified consequences.

But some vowed to walk out anyway.

Other schools sought a middle ground, offering "teach-ins" or group discussions on gun violence. Some worked with students to arrange protests in safe locations on campus. Officials at Boston Public Schools said they arranged a day of observance Wednesday with a variety of activities "to provide healthy and safe opportunities for students to express their views, feelings and concerns." Students who didn't want to participate could bring a note from a parent to opt out.

Meanwhile, free speech advocates geared up for a battle. The American Civil Liberties Union issued advice for students who walked out, saying schools can't legally punish them more harshly because of the political nature of their message. In Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Texas, some lawyers said they would provide free legal help to students who are punished.

Wednesday's walkout is just one of several protests planned for the coming weeks. The March for Our Lives rally for school safety is expected to draw hundreds of thousands to Washington, D.C., on March 24, its organizers said. And another round of school walkouts is planned for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado.

We will continue to update this story.

KQED's Vanessa Rancaño, Devin Katayama, Crystal Consaul, Alex Hall, Steven Cuevas, Erika Aguilar and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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