Hannah Weisman, a high school senior from Bethesda, arrived Friday morning at the White House with two friends. They were among the first to gather for a protest calling for an end to gun violence on the 19th anniversary of the school shooting at Columbine High School, an event that marked the start of an era of deadly school rampages.
They brought no signs because they felt the mood was more somber than major walkouts last month. On Friday, they were present to honor the slain.
All three of the Bethesda students were born a year or more after the attack at Columbine in Littleton, Colo.
“It’s scary because that was so long ago, and we’re here because nothing’s changed,” Piper Deleon, 17, said. “I hope that us speaking up, the young people speaking up, will get everyone else to speak up.”
Weisman said that since a Florida school shooting in February that left 17 dead, she has been wondering if her school could be next.
“It’s really upped my paranoia,” she said. “We’ve gotten bomb threats, we do these active shooter drills. But it just feels so much more real now. It could happen here.”
Across the nation, walkouts — smaller in scale than the March protests — signaled the resolve of students who continue to demand action on gun control measures and to remember victims of school shootings, including the 17 killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Florida.
In the Washington region, several hundred students left their schools Friday morning and staged a vigil outside the White House to pay tribute to the Columbine victims and others killed or wounded by guns.
Aniyah Smith, 17, knew that not everyone in her community could make it into the District to attend another walkout. So, she had an idea: collect letters from her classmates, teachers, community. On Friday, Smith arrived from Arlington with hundreds of letters, packed into plastic bins and bags.
“We’ve marched and we’ve been ignored. We walked out and we’ve been ignored. Let’s see [legislators] try to ignore us when we drop these right outside your office door,” said Smith, a senior at Wakefield High School.
Smith said she was inspired by walkouts on March 14 — a month to the day after the shooting at Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Fla. — and by watching her peers become more involved in the March for Our Lives event March 24.
“I just always assumed someone else would do something about things that are wrong in the world, you know?” Smith said. “But then I realized, why don’t I do it? Why can’t that someone be me? So, I did.”
As hundreds of students sat in silence for 19 minutes — one for every year since the Columbine shooting — Smith filled the silence by reading the names of the victims over a megaphone.
“We stopped saying their names a long time ago,” she said. “So until the end of this moment of silence, I will continue to repeat their names so you guys don’t forget them.”
The students then marched to the Capitol for a rally and to deliver letters to lawmakers calling for tougher gun-control measures.
At Stoneman Douglas High, about 100 students walked out of class and went to a nearby park. There, David Hogg, one of the most visible student leaders at the school, joined his classmates signing a poster with 13 footprints on it to represent the Columbine victims.
“For the 17 and the 13” said one message, signed Sophie.
“We stand together. We send our love. Enough is enough,” wrote Delaney Tarr.
Hogg filmed the walkout on his phone, just as he did the day of the shooting.
“They can’t stop us,” Hogg said. “Especially since we have our phones. We’re going to get the word out, keep telling the story.”
A grim reminder of the gun violence that has struck schools arrived early Friday morning before protests began. Students at Forest High School in Ocala, Fla., 270 miles north of Parkland, had to cancel their planned walkout following an early morning shooting at their school. One student was injured and the shooter, a former student, was taken into custody. There have been 13 school shootings reported in 2018, the highest number at this point in the year since 1999.
Columbine High School does not hold classes on the anniversary of the 1999 shooting, a practice that began the year after the assault, in which two teens killed 12 students and one teacher before taking their own lives. Students instead dedicated the day to community service activities such as volunteering in soup kitchens, participating in a park cleanup and reading to preschoolers.
On Friday at the Columbine Memorial, located a short distance from the school, a steady stream of visitors, many wearing school sweatshirts and hats and wiping away tears, read tributes and placed flowers for the victims of the shooting.
Addressing students at a rally at the U.S. Capitol, Columbine survivor Salli Garrigan told protesters that when she was their age, she didn’t know how to make her voice heard. Now 35 and an Arlington resident, Garrigan cautioned the students that victims of school shootings carry wounds for the rest of their lives.
“I hoped it would never happen again, but here we are 19 years later, and it has happened again and again and again,” Garrigan said in an interview. “But for the first time I feel hope because these students are using a voice I didn’t know I had two decades ago.”
The events Friday were more muted, missing some of the adrenaline and exuberance that had propelled hundreds of thousands of students through the previous protests. Participants said an array of factors may have contributed to the lower turnout, including a lack of promotion, confusion about the walkout’s goals, conflicts with mandatory standardized testing and, in some cases, protest fatigue among students.
School administrators were also rethinking their approach to the student actions. In school districts that had encouraged student participation in earlier walkouts or held moments of silence on campus, administrators were less inclined to continue accommodating the protests.
As with the walkout that unfolded March 14, school districts tried to strike a balance between giving students space to exercise free speech and not disrupting learning or risking safety.
In Montgomery County, school officials encouraged students to express their views but said they could not ensure their safety if they left school grounds. Before the walkout, officials said that students who left campus would be marked as unexcused.
Officials with D.C. Public Schools sent a letter to parents and students expressing support for students’ right to protest, but said absences would be counted as unexcused.
Some schools are administering national standardized tests this week, and administrators said students leaving in the middle of the day could compromise the exam.
Jacqueline Nadeau, a 16-year-old junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, organized her school’s walkout, which drew a crowd of about two dozen students.
“People were definitely more excited before the March for Our Lives,” Nadeau said. “People were less willing to go today.”
The walkout on March 14 and the March for Our Lives saw bigger crowds of students from the Bethesda public school. But, as the school year wanes, it’s hard to maintain those numbers.
“People kind of think, I did it, now I’m done,” said Nadeau.
There are also the demands of school. Nadeau said she skipped her AP Calculus exam Friday, but many students remained to take tests and finish schoolwork.
For some teenagers, protesting at school wasn’t enough.
Students began walking out of West Springfield High School in Fairfax County at 10 a.m. Some students gathered in the football stadium bleachers, but sophomores Maeve Hennessy and Maya Betts walked out of their Advanced Placement World History class and hopped into Hennessy’s Toyota 4Runner to begin their trip to join the protest at the U.S. Capitol. They stashed their book bags in the trunk and grabbed two posters.
“Protect kids not guns,” read one.
“Arms are for hugging,” read the other.
On the short drive to the Franconia-Springfield Metro station, they talked about how lockdown drills and the fear of becoming caught in a shooting have always been intertwined with their school experience.
“It’s scary going to school some days,” Betts said.
“If the laws don’t change, I’m never going to feel safe in school,” Hennessy said. “Which is something I never thought I’d have to say.”
At the Metro station, well-wishers approached the girls. One woman said, “Good luck to you, ladies.” Another flashed a thumbs up.
Lori Rozsa reported from Parkland, Fla. Sarah Larimer, Donna St. George, Perry Stein and Debbie Truong in Washington and Kristen Meriwether in Littleton, Colo., contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly referred to the location of Columbine High School. It is in Littleton, Colo.