TAMPA BAY, FL — It’s only 17 minutes. But for Tampa Bay area students participating in the national school walkout Wednesday, March 14, it represents a lifetime for the 17 students killed at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School one month ago.
Students at high schools in Polk, Pinellas, Sarasota, Manatee and Pasco counties say they plan to step out of their classrooms for 17 minutes on Wednesday to send a message to legislators.
“We don’t ever want to see this happen again,” said Abigail Douglas, a senior at Wiregrass Ranch High School and the committee chairwoman for her school walkout, part of a #Enough National School Walkout organized by EMPOWER, the youth branch of the Women’s March.
Like other high school students, Douglas said she was deeply affected by the Feb. 14 shootings at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, just 242 miles away from her school. The school walkout on the one-month anniversary of the shootings is intended to be a symbolic gesture to show lawmakers how important this issue is to students who fear a repeat of the shootings at their own schools.
“It could easily have been us,” Douglas said. “The demographics at Wiregrass Ranch are very similar to Marjorie Stoneman Douglas.”
The walkout has the blessing of Wiregrass Ranch High School administrators and teachers, Douglas said.
In fact, the Pasco County School District has endorsed it for all of the county’s high schools.
While the national walkout is scheduled for 10 a.m., Douglas said the Wiregrass Ranch High School walkout will take place from 9:50 to 10:07 a.m. “to prevent a long interruption of class.”
There will be no shouting, no debating the issues, no skirmishes, she said.
“It’s meant to be respectful display in memory of those who lost their lives,” she said.
Two counties away, Douglas’ counterpart at Sarasota High School is planning a similar event Wednesday morning. Senior Julianne Honeycutt said she’s expecting the entire school to participate in the 10 a.m. walkout.
“The administration is modifying the day’s schedule to allow for the walkout,” she said.
Honeycutt has taken her cue from her political activist mother, Dawn Grimes Honeycutt, who is active in the Women’s March.
Dawn Grimes Honeycutt was four months pregnant with Julianne on April 20, 1999, when the shootings took place at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, killing 15.
She’s frustrated that in the 19 years since — her daughter’s entire lifetime — nothing’s been done to prevent school shootings.
The Sarasota mother and daughter believe one reason is because students have never had a voice in the debate.
“They’ve been afraid to speak out,” Julianne Honeycutt said. “We need to show this country that we have a voice and what we think matters.”
She said the school shootings have taken a terrible toll on students, and they have a right to be heard.
“On Friday, somebody set off a fire alarm in one of the bathrooms at our school,” she said. “We’ve been trained to calmly walk out of the school when there’s a fire drill. But we had kids who were scared to leave the classroom because they were afraid someone would open fire on them.
“That breaks my heart,” Julianne Honeycutt said. “We go to school to get an education. We shouldn’t have to fear for our lives.”
At George Jenkins High School in Lakeland, senior Kala Ivy Tedder and fellow student Lily Richards organized the schoolwide walkout at 10 a.m. with the approval of the school’s administration.
Tedder said their goal is twofold.
They want to give fellow students a chance to grieve for and honor those who died at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School.
“We’ll have posters with the names of all the victims,” she said. “We’ll stand in solidarity with the students in Parkland and remember the lives of those who were lost.”
At the same time, Tedder is hoping the quiet demonstration shows students that they have a voice and their opinions count.
“We’re not politicizing the walkout,” she said. “But we still want to send a message to students that our voice matters and we need to get out there and vote. We should be participating in our political system.”
She agrees with Douglas and Honeycutt that students can no longer afford to remain silent.
“I don’t think we’ve been able to put enough pressure on legislators to get this done (school safety laws) at all levels,” she said. “Up until now, it’s been about money and politics. Well, money doesn’t vote. We do.”
“The first thing I did after the shootings was register to vote to ensure that I could go to the polls as soon as I turn 18,” she said.
As for definitive solutions to end school shootings, the three student organizers say opinions vary among their student bodies.
All three favor raising the age of gun ownership to 21 and would like an all-out ban on assault rifles.
Douglas noted that, when the nation’s founding fathers passed the Second Amendment to the Constitution, teen boys were taking part in the American Revolution, using guns to defend their homes and to put food on their table. That’s not the case today, she said.
“Our society now glorifies guns and violence,” Douglas said.
All three agree as well that the nation has done a poor job of funding and providing mental health treatment for teens who are angry, disturbed or depressed.
“We need to increase the number of guidance counselors at schools to a ratio of at least one per 250 students,” Tedder said. “Right now, it ranges between one to 500 and one to 700.”
Their opinions diverge a bit when it comes to arming teachers, however.
“It’s controversial at my school,” Tedder said. “Most of the students believe teachers should be armed.”
But all three student organizers have concerns about arming the bespectacled gray-haired English teacher who’s never held a gun in her life.
“She didn’t go into teaching to carry a gun and shoot someone who’s threatening her students,” Douglas said. “It’s not fair to ask her to do that.”
And where there are more guns, there is more of a likelihood that an angry or disturbed student will find a way to get a hold of one, Tedder said.
Honeycutt, however, isn’t ready to discount the idea entirely.
She believes if the teacher or staff member has a law enforcement or military background and is willing to step forward and undergo the training to carry a gun, it should be allowed.
There is one county that will not be participating in the national walkout. Hillsborough County schools are on spring break this week.
However, a number of Hillsborough students say they plan to participate in the national March for Our Lives taking place Saturday, March 24 throughout the country as a response to the school shooting.
The Tampa March for Our Lives will take place at at 10 a.m. at Kiley Gardens, 400 N. Ashley Drive, Tampa.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images