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Thousands of Michigan students walked out of classrooms and schools on Wednesday — part of a nationwide groundswell of civic activism started by student survivors of the Parkland shooting — to demand safety in their schools and action on gun reform.

Students took to football and soccer fields and school auditoriums to express their anger and frustration at the long list of school shootings in the United States in the past 20 years.

The national student walkout was an attempt to sustain momentum on the issues surrounding the attack on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. Students who participated in protest events around Metro Detroit urged fellow students to keep their voices loud and make their demands heard.

“You have no idea how much impact we can have. Amazing young men and women have organized this rally ... yet you don’t need to organize a rally or speak in front of 1,000 students to make your mark,” Novi High School student Antara Gandhi said. “Call for reform, call for change. Contact your representatives, your senators. Contact our president.

“Tell them background checks must be performed, there must be more mental health awareness and gun reform,” she said. “Tell them we call BS.”

The walkouts came one month after a gunman stormed the school in Florida and killed 17 people. It was the first of two planned student walkouts; the second takes place April 20, on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting that killed 13 people in Colorado.

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More than 2,100 Novi High School students leave their classrooms during Wednesday’s nationwide walkout to protest gun violence. Most entered the auditorium for a student-led program on a range of issues. Todd McInturf, The Detroit News

At Dearborn’s Fordson High School, demonstrators walked out of class at 10 a.m. and outside to hold signs that said “Stop Gun Violence” and “Fear Has No Place at Our School.” Some students laid 17 red long-stem roses on the school field in honor of each of the Parkland victims.

At Austin Catholic High School in Chesterfield Township, students participated in a worship service and wrote out prayers for the victims of the mass shooting.

In Novi, student speakers, a theater troupe, a choir and others took the stage to engage students on issues ranging from the Second Amendment to civic participation. Several gave powerful speeches that drew loud student applause.

A five-member theater group performed a skit using statements from victims and survivors of the Parkland shooting. At the closing of the event, speakers encouraged students to register to vote, contact state lawmakers and stay active.

Novi High School student Claire Cornellier told a crowd of 800 students gathered in the school’s auditorium that she has been told she does not have a voice and has been forced from conversations that others say do not concern her.

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Fordson High School seniors Alabas Farhat and Reem Abouzeid speak out against gun violence during a walkout protest gun violence on Wednesday March 14, 2018 in Dearborn. Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

“And now we have lost 17 more lives. ... It could have been us. It still could be us. But I can change this,” she said. “I have learned lessons you never had to face. I have found my voice and now you have to listen.

“We will be the voice of change, peace, tolerance, acceptance and love,” she said. “We will be the ones that end the violence.”

After the event, district Superintendent Steve Matthews said students identified issues that matter deeply to them.

“Our responsibility was to give them a forum to share those things,” he said. “It’s nice to have a forum but what’s really important is what are they going to do with it? Are they actually going to act and do something to change the world?”

Student Anna Wozniak, 16, said she appreciated the speakers’ comments and the weight of the material.

“I don’t normally get to hear people speak out like that. It was a different experience. I thought it was good, a good idea,” Wozniak said.

The National School Walkout began at 10 a.m. and, at some schools, lasted 17 minutes to honor the 17 students and staff members killed in the Feb. 14 shooting in Florida.

According to according to Women’s March Youth EMPOWER organizers, the walkout is a call to Congress to “pass legislation to keep us safe from gun violence at our schools, on our streets and in our homes and places of worship.”

Michigan students said the walkout was an opportunity to have their voices heard in a national conversation that often leaves them out. Their goal is to see meaningful changes in the laws to protect people from mass gun violence.

Some districts pledged not to discipline students for leaving class as long as no one was disruptive. None of the districts reported problems with students or the need to have police officers take action. Most of the walkouts were held on school campuses that are typically closed to visitors.

In the Lakeview Public Schools district in St. Clair Shores, students were not allowed to walk out of class or go outside after administrators said school is a place for learning, not political demonstrations.

Superintendent Karl D. Paulson said teachers spoke to students in the days and weeks leading up to the walkout about how they could be agents of change. They went over how to contact lawmakers and came up with ideas on improving school culture locally by reaching out to “17 new people” at school this week, he said.

“The idea was we need to do something more substantial. Let’s make an impact long term,” he said.

At Austin Catholic High School, with an enrollment of 83 students, the observance of lost lives took the form of prayers inside a chapel instead of a walkout.

Students filed into the darkened chapel for the service. Following the observance, Marcelina Powalka, 15, a sophomore, summed up the sentiment in the room.

“It really shouldn’t have happened,” she said. “These were young people who wanted to do something with their lives but they were cut short because of violence.”

High school students weren’t the only ones participating in Wednesday’s events.

About 150 University of Michigan-Dearborn students held a morning walkout to honor the Parkland massacre victims.

“We really want to make a change and this is the beginning of making a change in regards to gun violence and gun control,” said Sara Alqaragholy, 20, of Dearborn. “Gun violence and gun control are definitely things we need to talk about, especially considering recent events.”

Jacob Yesh-Brochstein, 22, of Dearborn Heights, a student at the university and activist with its Amnesty International chapter who helped organize the walkout, said he was pleased with the group who showed up in below-freezing temperatures.

He said something has to be done about gun violence in the country.

“We know and have known for a long time that government refusing to implement common-sense gun control has led to death,” Yesh-Brochstein said.

jchambers@detroitnews.com

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