In California and all across the nation, students walked out of school Wednesday to protest gun violence in the biggest demonstration yet of the student activism that has emerged in response to last month's massacre of 17 people at Florida's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Organizers urged students to leave class at 10 a.m. local time for 17 minutes — one minute for each victim in the Florida shooting — and suggested demands for lawmakers, including an assault weapons ban and mandatory background checks for all gun sales. Follow along for live updates throughout the morning.
4:16 p.m.: Walkout at Palms campus looks to send message
While many schools in Southern California sought to keep students on campus by holding assemblies to mark the one month since the Parkland shooting, hundreds of students at Palms Middle School in West LA decided to take to the streets to voice their support for ending gun violence.
Passing drivers honked horns as hundreds of students marched along Palms Boulevard, chanting “We have rights” and “Don’t take our phones away, take our guns away.”
One of the event organizers, eighth grader Hazel Holmes, said walking off and away from campus was important to make a statement.
“Walking out shows not just Palms that we care, but the district, Los Angeles, the nation that we care.” she said.
Math teacher Rashawn Primus walked along with the students to keep them on the sidewalk and make sure they were safe.
“I think they did a good job. I think they got their message out. I think they showed a lot of people 11, 12, 13-year-olds have a voice and can organize and make a difference,” she said.
Primus works with the school’s version of student council called the Leadership Team. She said members have been learning about protests in history since the beginning of the school year.
Some students marching told KPCC there were rumors that if they walked out, they would face disciplinary action and may be prevented from participating in culmination activities.
In a statement, the communications office for the Los Angeles Unified School District said that was “absolutely not true.”
Leadership Team vice president Jasmin Sudds said she was encouraged by the large turnout.
“I’m so overwhelmed,” Sudds said through tears. “I’m just so proud of us because if you think about it, nobody’s going to stop talking about this, especially because we’re eighth graders.”
1:59 p.m.: February gun threat hangs over Long Beach gathering
A week after the Parkland shooting, Wilson High School in Long Beach was one of several Southern California schools that became the target of threatened gun violence. A 16-year-old student was overheard making the threat and was later arrested.
On Wednesday morning, hundreds of Wilson students walked out of class and headed into the quad. Signs saying “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH” and “PROTECT KIDS NOT GUNS” were posted around the large outdoor space. There were also T-shirts on display bearing statistics about school shootings. Just after 10 a.m., members of the student council read the names of the victims of the Parkland shooting, followed by prepared speeches.
“We are confronted with the challenge of not becoming numb,” said freshman class president Michael Ndubisi, to a roar of screams and applause. He listed a number of recent shootings and noted that next month marks the 19th anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School.
“We are heartbroken by every life lost in between those 19 years to gun violence in this country, and we’ve had enough,” he said.
In the wake of the threat made by the Wilson student last month, school officials called for a campus-wide lockdown drill. Junior Jeremiah Stevenson was among those who participated.
“I feel like not a lot of people are taking it as soon as it should be taken. It’s just sad,” he said. “They take it lightly because they don’t expect it to happen to them, but neither did the people at Parkland.”
The gun threat in February wasn’t referenced during the program — but it was definitely on the minds of many at the gathering, which was completely organized by students. The school excused students from class to participate. School co-principal Gonzalo Moraga stood in the crowd. The role of the school leaders, he said, was to keep students safe during the assembly.
The formal assembly was on a stage in the quad, and each speaker had a mic. But when the program ended, a handful of students began yelling over the crowd to add their viewpoints. Senior Isaiah Walker called the program “half-done,” “watered down” and a “rehearsed theatrical experience.” He wished students who were not on the student council had been able to express other issues.
“The right to bear arms is a Second Amendment right, that amendment is not going away,” he said. “We’re getting too caught up on the weapon. It’s not the weapon, it’s the issue that no one’s talked about on a major platform, and it’s mental health.”
By 10:40 a.m., most of the students who’d gathered had returned to class, while a few dozen stuck around to vent and sign a petition to send to lawmakers.
Many students, including senior Max Chesher, said 17 minutes wasn’t enough.
“It didn’t feel like 60 seconds for each life [lost in Parkland] was enough,” she said. “They told us to have conversations with our peers, but they were ushering us back to the classroom right after. That didn’t feel like it was enough, honestly.”
She’s turning 18 next month and is anxious to be able to vote.
“There’s not a lot I can do right now because I am just a kid, but when I get older — and especially once I’m able to vote — I want to do a lot to change that.”
Around 11 a.m., the quad was full again — this time, for lunch. The T-shirts with the statistics about school shootings had been taken down.
— Priska Neely
10:25 a.m.: Palms Middle School students take part
Students at the West Los Angeles campus kicked off their planned walkout for 17 minutes on Wednesday in honor of the 17 victims of the Parkland school shooting last month.
– Carla Javier with KPCC staff
10:15 a.m.: Pasadena students walk out
Hundreds of students from Blair Middle and High schools in Pasadena were out in full force Wednesday morning.
The two schools share a campus on Marengo Avenue, and students began marching along the roadway.
The demonstrators carried signs with slogans including “Enough is enough" and loudly chanted "Not one more," a phrase now synonymous with the anti-gun violence movement that has seen renewed, youth-fueled energy in the aftermath of the South Florida school shooting.
– Matt Dangelantonio with KPCC staff
9:57 a.m.: Walkout begins at Wilson High School in Long Beach
One of the schools taking part in the nationwide walkouts is Wilson High School in Long Beach.
Signs with slogans including "Fear has no place in schools" were visible from the campus quad Wednesday morning as students started streaming out of classrooms to take part in the demonstration.
Students rallied together in the quad, with several speaking on a P.A. system from a stage.
One student voiced disappointment with lawmakers and encouraged students to take part in the November 2018 and 2020 elections when they are eligible to vote.
"If they won't make the change, we will," she said.
The campus was one of several in the Southland to experience a threat of school violence in the wake of the shooting in Parkland.
A 16-year-old student was arrested in connection to that threat.
— Priska Neely with KPCC staff
9:27 a.m.: Students prepare for walkout at Palms Middle School
Students at Palms Middle School in West Los Angeles planned to walk out for 17 minutes on Wednesday in honor of the 17 victims of the Parkland school shooting last month, joining students at thousands of other schools across the country.
One organizer said they planned to leave classes at 10 a.m., walk out to the front of the school and then march down to Palms Boulevard holding signs and yelling chants before returning to class. They chose the location because of its high visibility as a busy intersection.
The interim superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District has called the event "an empathetic and teachable moment." She affirmed students' right to free speech but also encouraged parents to tell their children to stay on campus.
Districts around the country have responded in different ways to the planned walkouts. In L.A., the district has organized alternative activities to allow students to voice their concerns about school safety without leaving campus. The district has also encouraged students to do 17 acts of kindness throughout the month.
One eighth grade student organizer told KPCC that despite the district's warnings, she planned to walk out of her art class anyway. She said she felt helpless after hearing news of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last month, and that inspired her to do something now. She said her parents planned to be with her in case the district decided to take any disciplinary action.
— Carla Javier with KPCC staff
7:15 a.m.: Survivor of Covina Christmas massacre is joining walkout
Katrina Yuzefpolsky was 8 when a man dressed as Santa Claus shot her in the face and killed nine of her family members with guns and a homemade flamethrower at a Christmas Eve party in Southern California.
More than nine years later, Katrina is 17 and joining a growing number of teenagers who have survived gun violence and are demanding change to weapons laws.
Katrina and her close friend created a video to help spread the word about the walkout at their school in Pasadena, telling peers that it's their "duty to stand together as a generation to demand change."
"I've lived through it, and I'm still living my life as best as I can," she said. "It's not stopping me, it's not instilling fear in me. I want that change. I don't want other families to go through what me and my family went through."
Katrina was the first one shot when her aunt's ex-husband, Bruce Pardo, burst into her grandparents' home on Christmas Eve in 2008. He immediately began shooting, then used the flamethrower to torch the house in Covina, 30 miles east of Los Angeles.
Pardo killed his ex-wife, who had recently divorced him, and eight of her relatives. He killed himself shortly afterward.
Katrina underwent surgery to remove bullet fragments and close the wound in her cheek that she got before escaping.
Her mother, Leticia Yuzefpolsky — who also escaped the massacre with her other daughter — has worked to make life as normal as possible for her girls and for her niece, whom she adopted after the girl's mother died in the attack.
She has tried to teach the girls not to give power to their family's killer, to continue celebrating Christmas, to associate Santa with good things, and to honor their loved ones by living life with purpose.
Katrina, a junior in high school, is doing just that. She loves playing softball and wants to keep it up in college while she studies business. She plans on going to an elite school, possibly Harvard or Amherst.
She tries not to sweat life's little irritations.
"I remind myself, 'I'm OK. These are minor details in my life. I will get through it,'" Katrina said. "I've survived being shot in the face, shot in the cheek, losing my family. A test is not going to break me."
Recently, she has been inspired by teenage survivors of the Florida shooting and their determination to effect change even though plenty of adults don't think they should have a say in the discussion over gun laws.
When her friend Bella Marez — also Pasadena's 100th Rose Queen — came up with an idea to make a video spreading the word about the walkouts, she immediately asked for Katrina's help.
"I really want our generation to wake up and say, 'We can make things happen and make long-lasting change,'" Bella said.
Katrina said the video and walkout have become part of her healing process.
"I know my family — my angels — are here watching me," she said. "They're seeing I'm finally going to make a difference and stand up for something that needs to be changed. I'm fighting for them."
— Amanda Lee Myers/AP
6:15 a.m.: Students to walk out to protest gun violence after Parkland shooting
In California and all across the nation, students planned to walk out of school Wednesday to protest gun violence in the biggest demonstration yet of the student activism that has emerged in response to last month's massacre of 17 people at Florida's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
In nearly 3,000 protests nationwide, students from the elementary to college level are taking up the call in a variety of ways. Some planned roadside rallies to honor shooting victims and protest violence. Others were to hold demonstrations in school gyms or on football fields. In Massachusetts and Georgia and Ohio, students said they'll head to the statehouse to lobby for new gun regulations.
The coordinated walkouts were loosely 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 — and suggested demands for lawmakers, including an assault weapons ban and mandatory background checks for all gun sales.
"Our elected officials must do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to this violence," the group said on its website.
But each community was urged to shape its own protests, and while parents and teachers in many districts worked together to organize age-appropriate activities, school administrators had mixed reactions. Some have applauded students for taking a stand, while others threatened discipline.
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 Pensacola, Florida, Superintendent Malcolm Thomas ordered up an in-school assembly instead. He warned students that they could discuss voting and mental health issues, but not guns, and saying that political banners would not be allowed.
"You can't make political statements, it can't be a pro-gun or anti-gun assembly," Thomas told the Pensacola News-Journal.
In Los Angeles, district officials have said they want schools to honor victims by staging on-campus activities and asked parents to discourage their children from leaving the campus.
Free speech advocates geared up for battles.
The American Civil Liberties Union issued advice for students, 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 will provide free legal help to students who are punished. The ACLU of Georgia's guidance letters to districts said "The United States Supreme Court has long held that students do not 'shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate'."
This nationwide action is one of several protests planned for coming weeks. The March for Our Lives rally for school safety is expected to draw hundreds of thousands to the nation's capital 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.
After the walkout Wednesday, some students in Massachusetts say they plan to rally outside the Springfield headquarters of Smith & Wesson, where students and religious leaders are expected to call on the gun maker to help reduce gun violence.
At Case Elementary School in Akron, Ohio, a group of fifth-graders organized a walkout with the help of teachers after seeing parallels in a video they watched about youth marches for civil rights in 1963. Case instructors said 150 or more students will line a sidewalk along a nearby road, carrying posters with the names of Parkland victims.
The walkouts have drawn support from companies including media conglomerate Viacom, which said it will pause programming on MTV, BET and all its other networks for 17 minutes during the walkouts, and allow students to temporarily take over MTV's social media accounts.
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, understanding that accepting punishments is part of what can make civil disobedience powerful.
"Change never happens without backlash," said Kara Litwin, a senior at Pope High School in the Cobb County School District.
The possibility of being suspended "is overwhelming, and I understand that it's scary for a lot of students," said Lian Kleinman, a junior at Pope High. "For me personally this is something I believe in, this is something I will go to the ends of the Earth for."
Other schools sought a middle ground, offering "teach-ins" or group discussions on gun violence and working to keep things safe. 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 don't want to participate could bring a note from a parent to opt out.
— Collin Binkley/Associated Press. AP writers Jeff Martin in Atlanta and Kantele Franko in Columbus, Ohio, contributed.