Thousands of Central Florida students walk out calling for end to gun violence

Thousands of Central Florida students joined nationwide school walkouts Wednesday to call for an end to gun violence and honor the people killed in a mass shooting at a Parkland high school one month ago.

Most students gathered for 17 minutes in a tribute to the 17 students and teachers who were gunned down by a 19-year-old shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14. The students who survived the shooting started the #NeverAgain movement, a call to action that has inspired young people to advocate for gun reforms like banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

click to enlarge Thousands of Central Florida students walk out calling for end to gun violence
Photo via JC Martinez
At Apopka High School in west Orange County, Julio Cesar "J.C." Martinez and his friends helped organize their school's walkout and distribute a flier with their demands, including the reinstatement of the 1994 federal assault weapons ban;  implementation of mental health screenings, safety training and extended waiting periods for people who purchase firearms; and the requirement of firearm liability insurance.

"We stand against attempts to militarize our schools and put firearms in classrooms," the flier said. "This is nothing more than a move by the gun manufacturers to sell more guns."

The flier also included information about getting registered to vote and contact information for representatives in Congress.

"You cannot let them off the hook for doing the bare minimum," the 17-year-old junior told his peers. "The time is now to act as a people to make sure the next 17 families won't lose their sons and daughters. The time is now to act as a people to demand these common-sense gun laws because this is not an issue of red versus blue, Democrat versus Republican. … This is about humanity."

Another student organizer, Steven Billings Larson, 18, says the purpose of the flier was to give his classmates a chance to actually have their voices heard. In the coming weeks, Billings Larson and his friends want to bring someone on campus to register students to vote.

"Personally, [Parkland] is like a last-straw type of thing for me," the high school senior says. "In the past there have been several mass shootings, and I didn't feel like I could do or say anything about it because I wasn’t 18, so I couldn’t vote and have my voice heard that way. I just wasn’t as fed up or done with the situation as I am now. In the past, people have tried to stand up and make change, and it just fades to black. I’m tired of that fading."

J.C. says he and his classmates are "not going to forget this time."

"Come November, we're going to hold all politicians accountable and make them listen to constituents," he says. "The main reason these solutions are being blocked is because they're not listening to the voices of the people but the money of the gun lobby. We're taking measures to not forget this time."

Leslie Bradwell, a senior at Apopka High, says she walked out today to get government officials to recognize that students will no longer sit by and wait for other school shootings.

"For those who didn’t participate because they don’t want a change, I believe you’re selfish," the 17-year-old says. "You’re thinking of how one law is going to affect you. Not how it’s going to affect millions of students and teachers. You don’t see it from our perspective because it hasn’t happened to you or someone you deeply care about."

At Boone High School in Orlando and Wekiva High School, students set up 17 empty chairs to honor the Parkland victims. In a statement, Orange County Public Schools listed the names and ages of each Parkland victim.

"The OCPS students who organized remembrance events at schools across the district today have varying political views but felt strongly that they wanted a way to honor the victims of the tragedy in Parkland," the district said in a statement. "They have been respectful of each other’s views and beliefs, even when they are different than their own. We support all of our students - those who choose to participate and those who don't."

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer also called for a walkout in downtown to the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts to stand in solidarity with students. He was joined by Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs and other officials.

"Unfortunately, our community understands the unimaginable pain and sense of loss that the Parkland community has experienced over the last month," Dyer told the crowd. "Just as the world stood with us after Pulse, today we stand united with Parkland, their community, the students and their parents and the memory of the 17 lives that were taken there one month ago."

Mayor Jacobs reminded the crowd that almost two years ago, thousands of people in Orlando gathered in the same spot during the darkest hour after Pulse to support each other as a community.

We wanted to send a message to our youth as they're struggling to get their message across in the halls of the White House and halls of the Capitol in Florida," Jacobs says. "We wanted them to know that their local government, their city, their county, their local community – we're right there with them. This is their day to shine and this their day to lead, but this is definitely our day to uphold them and support them."

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