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Metro area students plan walkout as day of action

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Royal Oak High student Elliot Widd will join hundreds of other students walking out of school Friday — the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre — and the 16-year-old believes the day will be different than walkouts held last month over school violence.

First, Friday’s walkout will last for most of the day instead of 17 minutes. But more importantly, Widd says, students in several Metro Detroit districts are leaving their school campuses and converging on downtown Royal Oak for a rally, where they will call for an end to gun violence in schools through reform.

“This walkout is more political and about action instead of a memorial,” Widd said. “Ever since we got 390 kids to walk out of school (in March), we have gained so much power. People see the support we have. We talk and people listen. It’s an amazing feeling to have.”

High school students from Royal Oak, Berkley, Bloomfield Hills and Ferndale Lake Shore public schools are headed to the city’s Farmers Market at 316 E. 11 Mile, where students have organized their own National School Walkout Rally from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Friday’s walkout is part of the more than 2,500 student-lead walkouts taking place across the nation. Across the state, Michigan has about 100 districts participating in walkouts, with more than 50 in Metro Detroit. Organizers are asking kids to walk out of school, wear orange and protest online and in communities.

Widd said Friday’s walkout will address what needs to be done in the weeks and months ahead — forming student chapters of activists groups, getting teens to register to vote and calling for more town halls — to keep the issues in the forefront of national and local conversations.

“We are working on starting chapters for Student Demand Action as well as Engage 18 chapters here in Royal Oak and we’ll work campaigning for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense this summer and into election season,” Widd said.

Last month, students across the state and nation walked out of school for 17 minutes, one minute for every victims of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting. .

Bloomfield Hill High school student Riya Doshi will be at the Royal Oak rally.

“ ... Now we have four hours to convey our message to students from around the area,” Doshi said. “For me this walkout is all about building upon the momentum we’ve created and keeping the conversation alive. Having a rally with students from all over the area instead of just our school is really going to provide students the opportunity to see just how many passionate students there are in our own community.”

Speakers will include U.S. Rep. Sander Levin and Oakland County Commissioner Dave Woodward and support from groups like Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense in America and Engage18, a nonprofit organization founded by high school students.

Student organizers say they expect hundreds of students from each of the districts and possibly more. Students are planning to walk from their local schools to Royal Oak, while some are attempting to charter buses. Widd said students were able to raise enough money to cover the cost of renting the Farmer’s Market.

National walkout organizers say they chose Friday to draw attention to what they say is a lack of gun reform since the Columbine attack, a 1999 school shooting which at the time was the first widely reported mass shooting committed by two students at a high school.

“Together, we will send a message that we won’t tolerate any more inaction on this issue. And if cowardly politicians fail to act, young people will show them the consequences of letting so many Americans die by voting them out in November,” reads a statement from, a website that has a searchable map for organized walkouts across the United States.

Adam Winkler is a UCLA School of Law professor who has written about gun reform and control for several decades. Winkler says while there has been no significant federal legislation in recent years or since Columbine, the gun control movement was reinvigorated with Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in 2012 at which 20 children were killed by a gunman.

“Newtown put the issue of gun control back on the top of the Democratic party’s agenda and now it’s become the most important issue for voters,” Winkler said. “Parkland students are successful because they are building on the movement with new energy and new focus.”

Those looking for evidence of change should not always focus on Congress, Winkler says. They should look at reforms in more than a dozen states where gun control has been restricted including in Florida, where just weeks after the Parkland shooting, the minimum age for all gun purchases was changed by lawmakers and the governor from 18 to 21.

“It’s a small step but in Florida a major one,” Winkler said.

Last month, several Parkland high school students met with Michigan lawmakers on Capitol Hill including Reps. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden, and Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield.

Students walking out of school can bring change, Winkler said.

“To the extent they can contribute to a mobilization of gun control forces, that could have a huge impact on November election,” he said.

Lindsay Warren, a volunteer for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Oakland/Macomb chapter, said local student turnout and activism has skyrocketed at her organization’s meetings and events.

“The recent growth is students who want to form their own chapters. Just like the Parkland kids, they are concerned about student safety. They know this is happening every where, every day to white people to black people. They want their schools to be safe and as a country, we need to look at our policies and make everyone safer,” Warren said.

Teacher and parent Alyce Howarth is taking a personal day to attend the Royal Oak rally where her son is among a group of Royal Oak student leaders at the event. Howarth is a social studies teacher for Southfield Public Schools.

“This is a very personal issue for me. I was teaching in another school district in suburban Denver in April 1999. Ever since then we have been doing lockdown drills. It really changed the tone when you have to take safety into consideration,” Howarth said.

Howarth said students need the support of teachers on Friday and while many of them are too young to vote for now, they are taking action by petitioning school boards for support, protesting on student walkout days and using their constitutional right of freedom of assembly.

“We hear about how this generation is so irresponsible, but they are using these (social media) devices as these tools for tremendous outreach. This is really amazing,” she said.

Several districts have issued letters to parents saying while they did support student-led walkouts last month, they are not supporting Friday’s.

Lake Orion Community Schools and Farmington Public Schools have issued letters to parents informing them the districts do not support students walkouts because “they disrupt the school environment, interfere with student learning and create unique safety risks for students and staff.”

Students who walk out will be marked as absent, unless they are excused by a parent, and students who participate in Friday’s walkout will not be supervised by the district and will be “at his or her own risk,” the letter says.

Kenneth Gutman, superintendent Walled Lake Consolidated School District, sent an email to parents that said “Unlike the events on March 14 which were organized to honor school shooting victims through 17 minute programs, the April 20 events are targeted at gun legislation and encourage students to miss a full day of school. The emphasis of the day also enters into a political debate that is not appropriate for a public school district to endorse, and rather requires neutrality.”

Gutman encouraged parents to speak with children about the importance of remaining in school on Friday.

In Plymouth-Canton Community Schools, officials are allowing students to gather for a moment of silence at a designated location inside school, but not walk out.

“Should a student choose to participate in the walkout then all school attendance rules still apply. Our student code of conduct does not list a walkout as an excused absence. Should students be called in on this day, we would follow protocol and have students exit the campus. As with any unexcused absence, students may not be allowed to make up work, earn credit for work missed, or be given extended time for an assignment,” an email to parents stated.

For students at Grand Blanc High School, school administrators are supporting student participation in the walkout on Friday. This comes after school officials there locked school doors on March 14 in response to a school threat, prohibiting students from joining thousands of others across the nation who did.

Michael Fray, school principal, said the students have been organizing for weeks and have presented a plan to school officials to hold a rally and have speakers.

“They are very excited. they have put a ton of effort into this. It’s very impressive to see them trying to be thoughtful in what they want to accomplish,” Fray said.

Friday evening, well after the walkouts are expected to be over, students and superintendents from multiple districts and spiritual leaders are gathering at the Muslim Unity Center in Bloomfield Hills at 6 p.m. for a community conversation to educate, raise awareness and increase involvement around building safe schools and communities.

Spiritual leaders are coming from Temple Beth El, Birmingham First Presbyterian, Christ Cranbrook and the Muslim Unity Center. Superintendents are expected from the Bloomfield Hills Schools, Birmingham Public Schools, Walled Lake Consolidated Schools and West Bloomfield Schools.

“May this event serve as an opportunity to join forces to ensure our kids and staff are safe in school,” Daniel Nerad, superintendent of Birmingham Schools, said in an email statement. “These are complex issues that will require all of to do many things. May we have the courage to focus on what works and to do so in an ever present and ongoing manner.”