‘We Need to Turn These Atrocities into Change’

March 15, 2018 GMT

LITTLETON -- Joining a coordinated effort of schools across the country, hundreds of students at Littleton High School walked out of class Wednesday morning and gathered in the auditorium to call for gun reform.

The organizers, all of whom were students, delivered powerful, sometimes emotional remarks before a hushed room, encouraging their peers to get involved and demand action. Teachers and administrators, who permitted the event to take place, stood in the back of the room and observed.

Wednesday saw similar demonstrations at thousands of schools, organized as a “National Walkout Day” to mark the one-month anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida.

As most others did, the event in Littleton -- originally planned as a formal walkout before organizers decided to hold it indoors because of the snow -- opened with a reading of the names of the 17 Parkland victims and a 17-second moment of silence.

“We all frequently have watched stories on the news like this and feel as though that could never happen to us,” Rachel Coupal, a senior, said during the demonstration. “But I can tell you that a majority of students in Parkland never thought that would happen to them either. We can’t let these lost lives turn into a lost cause. We need to turn these atrocities into change.”

Hundreds of students, what organizers estimated to be about three-quarters of the school, came to the auditorium to participate. A handful held homemade signs on their laps, unable to raise them without blocking the view of those sitting behind them. Coincidentally, the school was celebrating “America Day” as part of its spirit week, so numerous students wore images of the American flag or clothes tinged with its colors.

Students in Littleton did not face disciplinary action for participating on Wednesday. Administrators had spoken with the five organizers -- seniors Abbi Hartzel, Hayler Corbett, Alyssa Albertelli, Rachel Coupal and junior Sarah Gordon -- and wanted to allow students a chance to express themselves. They stressed, however, that the walkout was voluntary and that those who did not wish to be a part of it could simply attend class normally.

“Our democracy is based on civic engagement and discussion of contentious ideas,” said John Harrington, the school’s principal.

In her remarks following the moment of silence, Albertelli said the movement was not calling for a ban on all guns but instead reform policies that would prevent access to “weapons made with the sole purpose of killing a large amount of people as quickly and as easily as possibly.” She and her co-organizers emphasized repeatedly that students could and should become involved in the political process, criticized a recent push to arm teachers and called out politicians who have accepted money from the National Rifle Association.

Speakers described the emotional toll from observing shooting after shooting after shooting in an ongoing cycle. They recalled thinking to themselves, upon hearing unfamiliar yelling in the hallway, “this is it.” They admitted searching online for tips on how to hide from a shooter at a school. They confessed to daydreaming in class not about sports or love but about what they would do if someone burst in that very moment brandishing a firearm.

In a poem she wrote, Gordon recounted what it was like as a sixth-grader to offer a lengthy moment of silence for the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting and turned then to the anger she feels at a lack of action.

“I am not numb, I am not sad, I am not praying,” Gordon read. “I am furious.”

The oldest high schoolers in Littleton were born right around the time of the Columbine shooting in 1999, where two students killed 13 people. At that point, it was the deadliest school shooting in the country’s history. As senior Abbi Hartzel pointed out Wednesday, Columbine today no longer ranks among even the top three deadliest domestic school shootings.

“I’ve feared dying in school my whole life while a school shooting has occurred on an average of once every 32 days,” Hartzel said. “Enough. This occurs nowhere else in the world. Enough. There are real ways to stop children from dying in schools. It is not impossible, but it requires us to stop being complicit.”

The walkout ended after 17 minutes as promised, and students returned quietly to their classes. One girl approached lingered afterward to tell the organizers she was so moved that she “had goosebumps.”

Hartzel closed her remarks with a call to action, perhaps the simplest reduction of the walkout’s message.

“Stop waiting for someone to do something,” she said. “You are someone. You can do something.”

Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisLisinski.