Students at numerous high schools in Charlotte and surrounding areas joined the National School Walkout Wednesday. It was organized as a way for students to express their concern about gun violence and honor the 17 victims gunned down at a high school in Parkland, Florida, last month.
At William Amos Hough High School in Cornelius, there was a sense of excitement and urgency in the air as student organizers scurried around to make sure everything was in place for the program that would take place on the football field during the walkout.
Senior Rosemary Colen was one of the event’s organizers. She said the Parkland shootings hit home for her because demographically, Hough is similar to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland - the school where 17 people were gunned down. She said getting involved in the student walkout was never a question for her.
“I wanted to be a part of something and help and change something for the better,” Colen said. “As a student I want my rights protected the same as anyone and I want to feel safe in my school environment.”
Organizers set up a table with voter registration forms that students could fill out. Note cards were also on hand for students to send messages to the families of Parkland victims and to legislators. At 10 a.m., long lines of students filed down to the football field with cold, blustery winds pushing them forward.
Grace Elliott was the first speaker, setting the tone and theme that ran throughout most speeches: enough is enough. She said students are tired of feeling powerless, of inaction by legislators and of hearing stories of innocent students having their lives shortened by violence.
“I don’t have the perfect solution or answers, but we can all agree that 122 dead since Columbine is a statistic that demands change and that’s the point of today’s walk,” Elliott said. “We aren’t asking for change, we’re demanding it.”
About five students gave rousing speeches in front of more than 2,200 students - who were standing and sitting on the field, listening intently. The students gave what they called non-partisan messages designed not to tell students what to do, but to unite them and spur them to action.
“We can’t complain if we don’t participate,” Colen said to the crowd. “Call, email, visit your local representative and demand change.”
At one point, the names of the Parkland victims were read and a minute of silence was observed. At the end of the program, the students walked around the field’s track, shouting, “Enough is enough.”
Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham watched the program from the sidelines. She said it reminded her of the 1960s when she joined protests as a high school and college student.
“We protested the Vietnam War and it ended, lowering the voting age to 18, so I think something will come of it and these young people will stay engaged,” Cotham said. “They won’t do this and go back to the mall. They are gonna start paying attention and I want to hear from them and know what’s on their minds.”
Inside the school, teachers Sylvia Smith and Tara McCaffrey said only a few of their students decided not to join the walkout.
“One had to get work done and he was so behind and couldn’t afford to go,” McCaffrey said.
"I had a couple [of students] say it was because of the weather,” Smith said. “They said it was cold outside.”
Both teachers said they were impressed with the students’ activism and the way they organized the event.
As students went back to their daily routine, student organizer Jessica Clarke said she was surprised so many students participated.
“Demographically a lot of the students lean right here, and [this was] something that could be perceived of more of a liberal movement. I wasn’t sure how students would take to it,” Clarke said. “I think a lot thought it was gonna be us convincing them that we needed more gun control, and we wanted to stay away from that. From, here we keep demanding change until something is done.”
Clarke and other students said the National Schools Walkout let political leaders know that teenagers do care about the issues, especially school violence. They said they feel more empowered now and that their activism will continue.