Daniel Gelillo had just returned home from school when the news flashed on his TV screen. It had happened again. A gunman had walked into classrooms and opened fire, this time in Florida.
Gelillo took to Facebook and called on other Montgomery County students to leave school Wednesday morning and venture to the U.S. Capitol to rally for legislation that would aim to curb gun violence. Maybe, he and fellow student organizers thought, 150 of their peers would show up.
But when Olivia McCarren, a Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School senior and one of the organizers, emerged from Union Station, hundreds of students already had gathered and more were arriving.
“It’s really incredible to look behind you when you’re leading the march and see maybe thousands of kids walking behind you, it was crazy,” the 17-year-old said.
The demonstration was one of a flurry of student-led protests across the country following last week’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 people dead and sparked a surge of student activists calling for stronger gun control. This week alone, students have walked out of schools in Florida, Illinois and Pennsylvania.
To generate more visibility, Montgomery County students walked from their high schools to the nearest Metro station. For those at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, the walk was more than two miles down Colesville Road, a frenetic six-lane thoroughfare. Montgomery County police stopped traffic and made sure students did not stray from the lane they were told to walk in.
Holding a double-sided sign she made from a cardboard box, Blair freshman Sarah McKinzie said walking emphasized the students’ willingness to “go the longest way” to make sure their schools stay safe. As motorists honked in support, hundreds of students cheered and waved colorful handmade signs.
“I am incredibly proud of all the students protesting today,” McKinzie said. “My heart is swelling that we can be part of something like this that can help to bring about change and bring about awareness of this cause.”
Once at the Capitol, students chanted, “Enough is enough,” and held signs that read, “How many more?” and “We will not be next!” On more than one occasion, Capitol Police had to remind students to stay within a designated area.
Montgomery County school officials said about 1,000 students walked out of county high schools including Richard Montgomery, Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Blair, Albert Einstein, Northwood High School and Wootton High School.
Students were addressed by Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), who spoke to the crowd twice, moving from one side of the throng to the other, because of its size. Raskin compared the students’ efforts to the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War.
“Inside are the powers that be,” he said, referencing the Capitol. “Outside are the powers that ought to be, and you are the powers that are soon to be in the United States of America.”
Although the Capitol was the protest’s intended final destination, students decided to walk for more than half an hour under the blazing sun to the White House.
Although some took breaks — sitting on the ground or park benches — and others refueled at refreshment kiosks on the Mall, the majority pushed on. Their voices rang out, piercing the sounds of traffic and attracting the attention of pedestrians.
Rebecca Helm, a biology professor, said she heard the students chanting from inside her office at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
“I am so inspired by these students,” said Helm, who is on leave from the University of North Carolina at Asheville. “This generation has a lot of guts.”
The students were told they would receive unexcused absences for participating in the walkout, said Derek Turner, a Montgomery County Public Schools spokesman. In some other states, including Texas, students faced suspension for participating in protests.
Albert Einstein sophomore Sofia Hidalgo said that even though her school’s administrators urged students to stay on campus, she believed the protest was a place where “real learning” could happen.
“You take what you learn in your history books and you make [history] yourself,” she said. “We need to be pushing ourselves to not just be learning inside the classrooms but to take it to action.”
Before they left school, Hidalgo said she gathered Sharpies for people to write “Don’t shoot” on the fronts and backs of their hands. At the protest, they held their hands aloft — the inked words visible. Although a majority of the students aren’t old enough to vote, Hidalgo said they have the power of their voices.
“We can tell people we are the ones that are dying, we are the ones getting shot,” she said. “We are the ones that are being affected by this every day and it is our government’s job to protect us because that is what they are here for.”
Photos of students protesting for gun control and against gun violence
Sarah Larimer and Donna St. George contributed to this report.