Nearly 500 students at schools across Central Texas staged walkouts Wednesday to demand safer campus policies, call for stricter gun laws and show their solidarity with students in Florida after a high school shooting there that left 17 people dead.
The demonstrations came one week after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and amid a nationwide call for stronger protections.
Dripping Springs school district officials estimated more than 300 students walked out of their high school and middle school campuses, some from their classrooms and others while at lunch. A demonstration at Clint Small Middle School in Southwest Austin drew more than 100 students. About 50 students also walked out at Eastview High School in Georgetown, 30 at Vista Ridge High School in the Leander district and 15 at Austin High School, officials said.
Both Eastview and Vista Ridge students protested for 17 minutes in honor of the 17 students who died in last week’s shooting.
“I don’t want to be scared to go to school everyday,” said Hagan Hill, a senior at Dripping Springs High. “I’ve been outraged that time and time again this has been allowed to happen.”
Hill said she wants stricter regulations on who has access to guns, but said opinions on ways to prevent school shootings varied among those who walked out. Some said they believed teachers should be armed, something Hill doesn’t want. Despite their differences, Hill said the students wanted to show a unified front.
“We aren’t necessarily sure how change should occur, but we need it now,” Hill said. “It needs to happen, and there needs to be compromise between the parties to get change accomplished.”
Dripping Springs High senior Ravelle Dundon said their group “wanted to send a message to the Parkland students that they are not alone.”
“All of us who stood outside today and every other student that walked out of their school across the country are here to support them and stand up for them,” Dundon said. “Yesterday, the Parkland students lobbied outside their Capitol for hours and nothing was done by their leaders, and I can understand how that would make one feel hopeless, but we want the Parkland students to not lose hope because they have students all over the country that will stand with them and help them to fight until something is done by the adults who are failing us.”
At Clint Small Middle School, students lined up on the sidewalk chanting “no school shootings.”
“I participated because I want to practice my rights as a citizen and as a future voter,” said Mary Shakespeare, an eighth-grader at the middle school who said she supports tighter gun restrictions. “I shouldn’t have to fear for my life when I’m at school. I should be able to focus on my education.”
Livia Power, another eighth-grade student, said she took part in the walkout because she wanted her voice to be heard. She wants stricter gun control, but isn’t old enough to vote.
“How many more children dying will it take for Congress to do something and actually put restrictions in place?” Power said.
In response to the demonstration, the Austin school district sent extra police officers to Small Middle to ensure student safety, Principal Matthew Nelson said in an email to parents.
“We encourage our students to exercise their rights and to be civically engaged members of the community,” Nelson said. “We do strongly believe, however, that the safest place to have these discussions is inside our school buildings.”
Both Leander and Dripping Springs school leaders said demonstrations were respectful and caused little disruption. Staff at Vista Ridge worked with students “who wanted to show solidarity with their counterparts in Parkland, Florida,” said Corey Ryan, a Leander school district spokesman. “These students asked to support those affected by the tragic events of last week.”
The student walkouts Wednesday were the first of three national walkouts planned. One is scheduled for the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting on March 14, and another on April 20 for the 19-year anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado, where 13 people died.
On March 24, a rally called “March for Our Lives” to stop school shootings is planned in Washington, D.C., and other communities.
Abbott: Safety audits
Wednesday’s protests came as Gov. Greg Abbott called for school districts to shore up their safety plans to prevent school shootings from happening in the state.
“All of Texas grieves the tragedy that occurred in Parkland last week,” Abbott said in a news release Wednesday. “Immediate steps must be taken to keep our students and communities safe, with the understanding that more will be expected in the future.”
In a letter to Education Commissioner Mike Morath, Abbott said public schools must complete all safety audits required by law and submit them to the Texas School Safety Center. Created in 1999 by former Gov. George W. Bush, the center is housed within Texas State University and partially funded by the state to collect information, research and training about school safety.
Abbott said school districts must have a multihazard emergency operations plan in place and ensure that schools have conducted safety and security audits on all facilities. Abbott requested that all information from the center be made available to school districts and asked the Texas Education Agency to publicize any school districts that don’t follow audit requirements within 45 days.
The Leander school district already follows the measures that Abbott reinforced Wednesday, including submitting their audit to the school safety center in June, Ryan said.
Like many Central Texas districts, Leander has been installing single-point entrances in all its campuses since 2016, ensuring that most doors are locked from the outside. The district also partners with law enforcement agencies to provide, among other services, nine officers working directly at all high schools.
Abbott also asked the TEA to work with his office, the school safety center and the Texas Department of Public Safety to draft recommendations to the Legislature that could include requiring charter schools to meet the same safety requirements as school districts and ways to improve the safety of portable buildings and school sports events.