CEDAR RAPIDS — During Washington High School’s morning announcements Wednesday, students heard updates on volleyball meets and prom dresses before two boys began to address their peers.
“It’s going to be quite the transition from this peppiness,” Paul Linville, 16, said under his breath in a sociology class. All of his classmates sat in their desks, still bundled in winter coats and hats, as Walker Ochs, 17, took the microphone and addressed rumors of a school walkout.
“We’re not walking out to further a partisan agenda or to miss class. We are walking out because we are sick of gun violence in schools,” Ochs said to the student body. “No one is required to walk out, but if you desire change in any capacity, if you are ashamed that these tragedies keep occurring, then please walk with us today.”
Everyone in Linville’s class stood and headed for the doors, joining hundreds of their classmates and tens of thousands of students across the country who in recent days have staged demonstrations in the wake of the deadly school shooting last week in Parkland, Fla.
Seventeen people were killed Feb. 14 in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Expelled student Nikolas Cruz, 19, used an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle that he purchased legally a year earlier, according to authorities.
Since then, students have mourned the victims of school shootings and protested political inaction to stop them. The youths, many almost old enough to vote, are hopeful they will be the last generation subject to the recurring shootings.
“Every student in America grieves with these kids,” Linville said as his peers gathered near Washington High’s flagpole, where flags flew at half-mast. “Every student in America is furious. We are crying out with these kids. We are petrified, paranoid, paralyzed with these kids.”
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Students at Jefferson High School and Franklin Middle School in Cedar Rapids also walked out Wednesday.
Their demonstrations came after more than 250 students left classes Monday in the Iowa City school district, marching more than a mile to the University of Iowa Pentacrest before trekking back to class.
Iowa City students took a more political stance than students in Cedar Rapids, with many demanding stricter gun control and a ban of the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. The AR-15 has been used in several recent mass shootings.
As in Florida, it is easier to purchase an AR-15 rifle in Iowa than it is a handgun. A person must be 21 to purchase a handgun but only 18 to acquire a rifle or shotgun, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
“I’d like to be heard,” Iowa City High student Ileana Knapp, 17, said. “I feel like it’s important that our representatives listen to us as the children in jeopardy every time we go to school — because you never know.”
Administrators from both the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City districts did not condemn the class walkouts.
“Students at City High are intelligent, hardworking, socially conscious individuals. Our students are the leaders of tomorrow,” City High Principal John Bacon told parents in an email Monday. “It does not surprise me that City High students are working together in a peaceful, respectful manner to try to do what they believe is right.”
In Cedar Rapids, Washington High students returned after a moment of silence.
“I support their right to free speech and peaceable assembly,” Washington High Principal John Cline said. “I’m very appreciative that they did so in a way that was not disruptive to the school environment.”
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All of Washington High teacher Pete Clancy’s sociology students left his class Wednesday. Watching them go — led by Linville — was “awesome,” he said.
“I think it’s great to see these kids care so much about this,” Clancy said. “This was all their work and their idea. Over the past week, I’ve heard a lot of kids talking about how disillusioned they are — that nothing would get done, and I think this just goes to show that politicians need to pay attention to these kids.”
Washington students emphasized their first priority was to honor students and school staff killed last week. But they’re hopeful elected officials are listening.
“We no longer feel safe in schools; that needs to change. Legislation may have the power, but we have a voice,” Linville said outside over a megaphone. “For me and so many others, it’s not about political parties, it’s not about opinions, this is not a debate. These are kids’, teachers’, administrators’ lives. This is about us.”
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The Washington Post and Madison Arnold of The Gazette contributed.