DC area students ready for National School Walkout

- On Wednesday, thousands of students are expected to walk out of classrooms to protest gun violence across the nation. In the D.C. region, students plan to meet at the White House for a rally. It will start at 10 a.m. and last 17 minutes -- one minute for each person who died in the Parkland, Florida school shooting.

The National School Walkout is the second one that has been held since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. A national walkout drew thousands of students from classrooms on Feb. 21.

So, why the need for a second walkout?

“The big criticism of all student protests or walkouts is, 'What is this going to accomplish?’” said Daniel Gelillo, a senior student at Richard Montgomery High School. “'Aren't you just leaving class?’ But with sustained action, we will be able to press this issue and keep it in the forefront of the dialogue this country is having right now. So by staying out there and continuing to participate and take actions like this, I think we will be able to move this conversation forward and see legislative action and legal changes.”

Gelillo hosted about 30 students at his home Tuesday night to get organized ahead of Wednesday’s event. He said he and others are so passionate about this issue, these meetings outside of school have been a regular occurrence since Parkland.

“I’m going to stay in this fight until we see some change,” he added.

Gelillo is one of several students leading the charge in Montgomery County.

But area schools are not onboard with the off-campus demonstration.

“There is a safety concern when parents drop their kids off at school in the morning or they ride the bus,” explained Montgomery County Public Schools spokesperson Derek Turner. “Those kids are in our custody. When they leave school campus without permission, they jeopardize their own safety and make it harder for us to ensure they are safe. And that is our responsibility.”

Students have reported being harassed and even threatened during previous walkouts. 

But Turner said the school district also recognizes the need for students to exercise their First Amendment rights.

“I think that is fundamental to our democracy and we need to make sure it is fundamental to our school system,” he added.

Fairfax and Arlington County Public Schools are not endorsing the walkout, but will not mark students absent. In school systems in Montgomery, Prince George's, Charles, Loudoun and Prince William County, all of them will mark students who leave school as an unexcused absence.

But they are encouraging participation in other ways – whether it is a rally on campus, a gathering to write letters to lawmakers or a balloon release. Students need to check with their school for their plan.

And for students who do not have the ability to leave campus, but still want to do something, there is a new movement also gaining attention called #WalkUpNotOut. The idea is to encourage students to walk up to someone in school who they typically would not, maybe someone who sits alone at lunch or just someone not in their group. It encourages students to strike up a conversation, befriend those who they normally would not and change any harmful or bullying culture in schools.

But Gelillo said there is a reason for the walkout.

“This is a flashpoint in U.S. history,” he explained. “The youth once again will be the champions of an issue that needs to be addressed. While I know that there are a lot of people who are hesitant about missing class or getting in trouble, I don’t think that people can afford to think that way because if people had that same attitude during the anti-war movement or Vietnam or during the civil rights movement, nothing would have gotten done. So I think that you just need to be brave and take that step and come out with us tomorrow.”

Students plan on meeting at one of several Metro stops early in the morning, and then traveling down to the White House together. Montgomery County Executive candidate David Blair is donating 250 Metro cards to help fund the trip for students who can’t afford it.

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