Practical challenges aside, many students have sought to complicate the narrative attached to the walkouts—including some who've distanced themselves from them—in an effort to raise awareness about the diversity of youth experiences when it comes to gun violence. Yesterday, 20 organizations representing more than 1,000 students of color released an open letter in advance of today’s walkouts, demanding that conversations about school safety take racial-justice issues into account. The letter emphasizes that efforts to strengthen school security affect students of color at disproportionate levels.
Rosa Florez, a 17-year-old student from Oak Ridge, Florida, who helped draft the letter, told me Thursday that she was still deciding whether to participate in Friday’s walkouts. “I feel kind of disconnected from the issue at hand,” she said, stressing that school shootings deserve attention. But she worries that the walkouts could lead to school-safety measures, like more campus police, whose negative consequences disproportionately affect disadvantaged students. “The community that becomes more vulnerable with the legislation that is proposed will be my community,” she continued. “If I walk out, what legislation am I supporting?”
It’s also worth noting that students at Columbine High School are not participating. The school has commemorated the day annually by having students engage in community-service work rather than attend classes—an approach that its principal promoted this year as an alternative to walkouts. Some Columbine students expressed disappointment that the Connecticut organizers chose the anniversary of the 1999 massacre for their national protest. “This is the worst day for our community,” said Kaylee Tyner, a junior who believes in the protest’s cause and helped organize Columbine’s participation in the March 14 student walkouts. “It was like using our anniversary to push this political agenda … It could’ve been on the 19th or something,” she said. A student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland told The New York Times that MSD administrators are urging students not to walk out out of respect for the Columbine students.
For Murdock, who said many in the Columbine community expressed support for the Friday walkouts, this iteration of the youth movement is ultimately aimed at celebrating today’s students and the movement that’s empowered young people across the country. And perhaps these debates among young people over how and when to make their voices heard are a manifestation of that empowerment.
In discussing last month’s walkouts, the student-activism scholar Dawson Barrett told me that these national youth demonstrations function as a kind of civics education for all students, whether or not they decide to participate. “By May,” he told me then, “every high-school student in the United States is going to have contemplated protesting.”
Now, in April, it seems that students are doing more than contemplating: They are debating, arguing, and reframing the conversation. Maybe that’s a sign that the movement is the most powerful it’s been yet—or maybe it's a sign that it's turning into something less unified and more complicated.