Before a hushed crowd of several hundred Gainesville High School students on Wednesday morning, March 14, junior Matthew Penado read the names of each of the 17 victims of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, last month.
It was part memorial and part protest as the students joined a nationwide call for school walkouts to pressure Congress to enact legislation to reduce gun violence and improve school safety.
“Protests help to get the ball rolling and get some conversations started here in our community,” Penado told The Times when the walkout concluded.
Principal Tom Smith said student leaders informed him of their intentions to walk out at 10 a.m. and that additional security provided by the Gainesville Police Department was on hand to ensure the safety of all students who chose to participate.
The entrance gates to the school were also closed and locked during the walkout.
“I think we’ve honored what they’ve asked for,” Smith said.
Gainesville City School System Superintendent Jeremy Williams also said the walkout was handled well by administration, faculty and students, and that there was no need to step in and be heavy-handed on the matter.
“I’m very proud of our students for communicating with school administration and honoring the 17 Parkland victims,” Williams added.
At Chestatee High School, more than 300 students gathered on the football field and unveiled a banner that read, “The maroon, silver and black Chestatee War Eagles stand with the maroon, silver and black Stoneman Douglas Eagles.” They also released 17 red balloons in one-minute intervals and read the names of the victims.
Chestatee honors Florida school shooting victims
And at Lanier Charter Career Academy, the student council led the walkout with a speech about family, reading each of the Florida victims’ names and launching balloons in their honor.
“It was certainly a special moment planned and implemented by our students. Truly a teachable moment,” Hall County Schools spokesman Gordon Higgins said.
Fifty students participated in a similar walkout at East Hall High, while 150 participants joined in at Johnson High School. At North Hall High, 88 participants were counted, and at West Hall and Flowery Branch high schools eight and one participants were counted, respectively.
“Today at our high schools, principals have reported the number of students within their schools who chose to participate,” Higgins said. “All principals reported participation at their schools, which was very orderly.”
Students at Lanier Christian Academy in Flowery Branch gathered in groups of 10 or 15 and prayed in the school parking lot, on ballfields and other campus areas to memorialize the victims in Florida.
Al Gainey, school president and CEO, said he was proud the students “took it upon themselves” to respond in this way.
“We’ve got to put Jesus back in everything we do,” he added.
At Brenau University, more than 100 students, staff and faculty members gathered on the front lawn of campus to remember the victims, according to a school press release.
And Grace Episcopal Church, located directly adjacent to the gathering, rang its church bell once every minute for every victim.
After each toll of the bell, a Brenau student read the name and a short biography of each victim.
For the students involved at Gainesville High, the walkout was not the end but rather a beginning to more action.
“We shouldn’t have to stand out here and protest … because our politicians can’t get their act together,” junior Jack McFarland said. “It’s as simple as that. I don’t want to have to stand out here for any of my classmates.”
Burgin Lee, a senior, said she also hopes she never has to memorialize her own classmates.
“This is just so much more than 17 minutes of silence,” she said, adding that Gainesville High is known for socially conscious rallies.
Lee also expressed solidarity with the victims and their friends and family in Florida, referencing the Gainesville mascot in the process.
“I don’t think Parkland should worry because an elephant never forgets,” she said.
Tia Shelton, a junior, said gun violence on school campuses seems to be growing “more and more and more” and that she hopes lawmakers will provide funding for better safety and security measures.
“I think there’s more people now that actually sit and think about what’s going on,” she added. “It can happen anywhere.”
Bailey Becker, a sophomore, said school security is “something we need to change.”
“I think the fact that people actually showed up today showed support” for such change, she added.
For Penado, what comes next may be a long and arduous process, but worth the while.
“The next step, I think, for students here, if they’re turning 18, is to go register to vote,” Penado said. “Change is slow … but it happens.”