CORTLAND — Eleventh-grader Karleigh Gohs stood in silence for 17 minutes outside the Cortland Senior- Junior High School with about 75 fellow students, hands shoved deep in the pockets of her red Tommy Hilfiger jacket, snow falling on her blonde hair as she swayed against the cold.
She stared ahead, as did her classmates, who were quiet during the 17 minutes dedicated to the 17 victims of the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and also a call for gun law reforms.
The national event, #Enough: National School Walkout, a student-led effort, saw participation in various forms — including events in Homer, Groton, Moravia and Marathon — though students left the building in only two districts, Cortland and Moravia.
Cortland administrators, citing political fairness and security, had urged students not to leave the building and to instead walk into the hallways during the 17 minutes that started at 10 a.m. But senior Kali Boyce, who organized the walkout, did not think that was enough of a statement, so she and her fellow participants decided to stick to the original plan.
Afterward, she said she was very pleased.
“I don’t think I could have had a better outcome,” she said.
At a Tuesday night school board meeting, Cortland Superintendent Michael Hoose said the district would count participants who left the building as absent during that time, though they would not be disciplined beyond that.
At the event, some administrators even showed some support for the students. Senior High School Principal John Zarcone told students at 10:17 a.m., at the close of the event, to “please keep in mind all day and every day why you are out here and what this all meant,” before telling them he was proud of them.
The students gathered outside were surrounded by a wall of adults, mostly parents, many holding signs of support, a showing that Boyce said moved her to tears. However, Hoose asked news media not to attend, saying he was trying to keep the event as “quiet and controlled” as he could.
Hoose also said he was concerned that by allowing the students to stand in support of gun control, the school may be in the position of allowing a platform for those who oppose further gun control measures.
“I am not going to turn the school into a political football,” Hoose said Wednesday before the event. “I am more than happy to help these students advocate for themselves and I’ll do an American flag. The caption: “I’ll control my own guns, thank you.”
The protests took place at schools from the elementary level through college, including some that have witnessed their own mass shootings: About 300 students gathered on a soccer field at Colorado’s Columbine High, while students who survived the Sandy Hook Elementary School attack in 2012 marched out of Newtown High School in Connecticut.
In the nation’s capital, more than 2,000 high-school age protesters observed 17 minutes of silence while sitting on the ground with their backs turned to the White House. President Donald Trump was out of town.
The students carried signs with messages such as “Our Blood/Your Hands” and “Never Again” and chanted slogans against the NRA.
In New York City, they chanted, “Enough is enough!” In Salt Lake City, the signs read, “Protect kids not guns,” “Fear has no place in school” and “Am I next?”
At Eagle Rock High in Los Angeles, teenagers took a moment of silence as they gathered around a circle of 17 chairs labeled with the names of the Florida victims.
Stoneman Douglas High senior David Hogg, who has emerged as one of the leading student activists, livestreamed the walkout at the tragedy-stricken school on his YouTube channel. He said students couldn’t be expected to stay in class while there was work to do to prevent gun violence.
“Every one of these individuals could have died that day. I could have died that day,” he said.
In joining the protests, the students followed the example set by many of the survivors of the Florida shooting, who have become gun-control activists, leading rallies, lobbying legislators and giving TV interviews. Their efforts helped spur passage last week of a Florida law curbing access to assault rifles by young people.
Another protest against gun violence is scheduled in Washington on March 24, with organizers saying it is expected to draw hundreds of thousands.
But whether the students can make a difference on Capitol Hill remains to be seen.
Congress has shown little inclination to defy the powerful NRA and tighten gun laws, and Trump backed away from his initial support for raising the minimum age for buying an assault rifle to 21.
A spokeswoman for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, newly appointed head of a federal panel on school safety, said DeVos “gives a lot credit to the students who are raising their voices and demanding change,” and “their input will be valuable.”
David Farber, a history professor at the University of Kansas who has studied social change movements, said it is too soon to know what effect the protests will have. But he said Wednesday’s walkouts were without a doubt the largest protest led by high school students in the history of the U.S.
“Young people are that social media generation, and it’s easy to mobilize them in a way that it probably hadn’t been even 10 years ago,” Farber said.