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17 Minutes That Stopped Schools

Teen-led national walkouts inspire. Can they lead to real action?

Published on: March 14, 2018

gun sign

For me, the school walkout symbolically began yesterday, when I read (and saw) that 7,000 shoes had been placed on the Capitol lawn in D.C. to represent the number of children killed by gun violence since the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012. It's a stunning visual. 

Those 7,000 children, including the 17 teenagers who were murdered one month ago in Parkland, will never again get the chance to march, but thousands of their peers took to streets and squares today to protest the lack of national action on school safety and common-sense gun measures. "The Washington Post" said the action, organized by the youth arm of the Women's March, Empower, was "unprecedented in recent history." 

Students marched out of high schools, middle schools and, in some cases, elementary schools. In Seattle, thousands of high schoolers walked — some for miles — to the University of Washington's Red Square, where Mayor Jenny Durkan spoke. Gov. Jay Inslee spoke at Ballard High School.

As the parent of a second-grader, I decided not to pull my son out of elementary school today, but instead met some friends to walk down to our local middle school to support students during the walkout. We signed in as volunteers, and lined the busy street in front of the school as a sort of human barrier between marching students and the traffic (the irony).

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As with many middle schools, this walkout was school-sanctioned; the kids filed out and marched, for 17 minutes, in front of the school. Some were laughing and chatting; some chanted ("We call... B.S."). Some solemnly, or smilingly, held up signs:

"Arms are for Hugging" 

"Not One More" (with lots of glitter)

"I Shouldn't Be Afraid to Go to School"

It seemed to go on forever. Seventeen minutes. One minute for every life taken in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Imagine standing there for 7,000 minutes. One hundred sixteen hours. 

Teenagers are doing what grown-up politicians are scared to do: leading.

Like most people I know, I am deeply moved by the action teens are taking to call our national leaders to action. And, like many parents, part of me wishes they were learning their activism chops on an issue that wasn't about whether they could show up to school every day without fear of being gunned down. How about climate change or immigrant rights?

A friend and ParentMap writer put it this way in an email to me: "Kids are supposed to be kids, but money runs this crazy gun stuff. So our kids have to protest because the adults refuse to turn away from the NRA? Oy."

I have just one child. He was only 3 when Sandy Hook happened. I still remember picking him up from his sweet home-based preschool that awful day and having a whispered conversation with the teacher about whether she'd heard. (That was just six months after the Cafe Racer shooting happened while I was sitting, working, at a nearby coffee shop in northeast Seattle.)

He's 8 now, an energetic second-grader who loves Pokemon, Legos and Nerf guns. I wrestle with how much to tell him about school shootings, realizing that I'm privileged to even consider this question.

I am learning from other parents about how to involve your kids. Tanya Thackeray Wilson, a Seattle realtor and cofounder of the Seattle chapter of Stop School Shootings Now, hoped her children's elementary school would host a walkout. When it didn't, she took her second- and fourth-graders out of school to join Roosevelt High School students on their march to Red Square.

Red Square
The rally at Red Square. Photo credit: Tanya Thackeray Wilson

She was impressed by how organized and inclusive the young marchers were (her kids got lots of high-fives for being there). The march stretched about two city blocks, and as they converged on Red Square they could see groups of students entering from all sides. 

"I was on the verge of tears," she says. "It was beautiful."

She felt a renewed sense of momentum and hope. And it was a very positive experience for her kids. "They couldn’t stop talking about it," she says.

So maybe next time I will take my son. In the meantime, although I don't tell him that there have been seven "firearms attacks" in U.S. schools just since the beginning of the year, I do talk to him about America's issues with guns, and the changes I believe need to happen.

And I tell him about the teens, that kids not that much older him are doing what grown-up politicians are scared to do: leading. They're marching and organizing and testifying in Olympia, and setting an example for kids and adults alike.  

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