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Gainesville students and community members march from Buchholz High School to Congressman Ted Yoho's office to remember those killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and call for an end to gun violence. (Kaila Jones / WUFT News)

North Central Florida Students Join National Gun Violence Walkouts

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High school students across North Central Florida joined their counterparts nationwide to walk out of school Wednesday morning in solidarity and protest over gun violence reform.

Their activism comes in the wake of a Feb. 14 school shooting massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida where 17 people died and dozens more were injured in an attack that has ignited calls for stricter gun laws, including one passed by the Florida Legislature, as well as improvements in school safety.

The group behind the nationally organized walkout, which was expected to include rallies at more than 3,000 schools, is Empower, a youth wing of the Women’s March movement. It called for 17 minutes of silence — one for each victim — starting at 10 a.m. E.T. in a symbolic protest aimed at drawing national attention to what some see as a growing culture of gun violence that continues to occur at schools.

Since 1990, statistics show 22 shootings with at least two victims have occurred at both elementary and secondary schools across the U.S.

At the University of Florida, students gathered in the Plaza of the Americas in support of the high-school walkouts. The gathering was organized by the progressive campus activist group Indivisible UF.

“Today we wanted to be an outlet for students who are frustrated with the gun laws and also the students who are in mourning.” said student Jeremy O’Brien, an IUF member. “We think more should be done to prevent tragedies like this.”

Danna Abdin, a 19-year-old UF freshman who graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year, was also among the UF crowd. She turned emotional when talking about the tragedy.

“I participated in the walk and saw other people here. I wanted to be with other people supporting my community,” Abdin said, through tears.

“I support the gun control laws, the recent laws that passed,” Abdin said. “It’s not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction. Hopefully with the march on the 24th we can bring more attention to it and get support.”

In Newberry, about 50 students gathered around the flagpole of Newberry High School to watch student body president Maria de la Cruz, 17, and her fellow student, high school senior, Shelbie Seeberg, take turns reading the names of the victims of the Parkland shooting.

“I’ll try not to get emotional,” de la Cruz said, her voice breaking as she read about the lives and deaths of the victims.

“We are not trying to advocate for anything. We are just showing our condolences,” she told those at the gathering, hoping to reassure parents and some students that this was not a protest, but a way to commemorate the victims.

As a student leader at NHS, de la Cruz said she feels that she has to make sacrifices and put some of her personal beliefs aside. She said she wants everyone to feel safe and included.

Before the Parkland shooting, de la Cruz said she had a clear vision of what she hoped to do with her life. After the shooting, she has changed her focus, hoping to stay close to home and find a career where she directly impacts her community — a way to give back.

Newberry High School Principal Kevin Purvis, a Newberry native, said some of his parents called to say their children would not be participating in a walkout. His own son, a 10th grade student at the school, remained in class.

Purvis, who was a teacher during the 1999 school shooting at Columbine, said it is sad to see an era where children are afraid to go to school. Of Parkland, as the principal of a high school, he added: “It’s the kind of thing that keeps you awake at night, hoping you’ve done everything you can to keep students safe.”

As the morning of protests began, Gainesville residents took to Twitter to offer their support of those students participating in the walkouts.

“Anyone complaining about kids these days hasn’t spent enough time with kids these days. We stand with our students,” Jon Mundorf posted in support with a photo taken at PK Yonge Developmental Research School.

Others urged support: “Along 16th Ave this morning in Gainesville, honk if you’ve had #enough,” tweeted G. Taylor McKnight.

Added Cara McDonnell on Twitter: “This is not a Dems vs Rep issue. This is a right vs wrong issue. These teenagers are standing up for what they believe in, which is so powerful/inspiring. Imagine where we would be if those before us didn’t stand up for what they believed in? I’d rather not.”

One person posting from Gainesville High School on Instagram, Xander Kiker, showed a sizable crowd singing “Amazing Grace.”

#nationalschoolwalkout

A post shared by Xander Kiker (@xanderkiker) on

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