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It went like clockwork.
A 17-minute school walkout to memorialize the victims of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting that killed 17 people last month took place right on schedule.
Hundreds of students filed onto Heritage High School's football field at precisely 10 a.m. on March 14, a month to the day since a gunman opened fire on teenagers and staff at the suburban Florida school.
Students at the Littleton school huddled in a tight mass on the field's end zone, and at 10:17, they filed back inside.
The walkout was held in solidarity with schools nationwide as part of an effort to remember school shooting victims and push for school safety reform. Students at Littleton High School and Arapahoe High School also walked out en masse, a move that Littleton Public Schools superintendent last week called an opportunity for students to explore participation in the civic process.
The walkout was an important step in advocating for gun law reform and cultural change, said Sabrina Ehrnstein, a Heritage High School junior who was instrumental in organizing the event. A previous walkout on Feb. 21 drew only a handful of students.
“Today was a reminder that we're not going away,” Ehrnstein said. “Like most movements, it doesn't happen overnight. When teenagers want to be listened to, we have to try extra hard. This second installment is our reminder to the adults out there that we're still fighting for our safety, and they haven't done anything yet.”
Ehrnstein said she sees the walkouts as a way to demand legislation “to keep us safe from guns.”
“When it's our safety at issue, we're not trying to get rid of rights, we're trying to restrict access to something that can kill 30 people in a minute,” Ehrnstein said. “When I say people, I mean kids. At their desks. In school. The lives of children are not a partisan issue.”
Ehrnstein said she's heard the pushback that has spread across social media in recent days that students should “walk up, not walk out,” meaning to reach out to ostracized classmates who might feel socially isolated and therefore more likely to commit massacres.
She says students can and should do both.
“Personally, I value my education, which is why I'm fighting for my safety,” Ehrnstein said. “I believe every child should have free access to a safe and fair education. Safety is not part of our education right now.”
She added that asking students to “walk up” to others who might become school shooters is asking them to befriend potentially highly dangerous people.
“Walking up” is not a new idea, and it hasn't seemed to work very well, said Junior Miles Hersch, who helped organize the walkout and leads the school's Progressive Club.
“We tried walking up for many years,” Hersch said “We tried anti-bullying programs after Columbine, but that's just not a reality in high school. There's bound to always be someone who's upset about their high school experience. Teenagers aren't necessarily always super nice. We have to try to fix the problem in other ways, too. We can't just keep trying the same thing and hoping for a different result. The results just keep getting worse. We need to start trying to disrupt a little bit of class time so teachers realize that this is an issue we're willing to stop our learning for, and learning is really important to most students at Heritage.”
On the other side of the football field fence, a small group of adults stood and watched the walkout in silence. Some of their names will sound familiar to locals who recall the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, in which two teenagers killed 12 classmates and a teacher before fatally shooting themselves.
Tom Mauser's son Daniel was killed in the attack. Mauser became a vocal gun control advocate in the years following the massacre. Mauser's daughter is a senior at Heritage.
“I know how many people gun violence impacts,” Mauser said. “Even today we hear stories of PTSD and other problems that survivors of Columbine have. It leaves a deep scar on society.”
Mauser wore his son's sneakers— the ones Daniel died wearing — “so Daniel can walk with me,” he said.
“Walking up” to the Columbine killers might not have saved his son, Mauser said.
“We don't even know that nobody did walk up to them,” Mauser said. “There was a real mental illness there, and even a psychologist didn't know the extent of those killers' disease. Would kids have understood to treat them differently because they were psychopaths?”
Rick and Sue Townsend, whose daughter Lauren was killed at Columbine, said the walkout was the first time they've come out to publicly protest.
“We have quietly protested in the past, by signing petitions or voting for candidates who supported our causes, but there's something different after Parkland,” said Sue Townsend, Lauren's stepmother. “With their energy and passion, we'll support them 100 percent. Something needs to change. You can't legislate evil away, but you can do things to slow it down.”
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