SC students shout 'Keep us safe,' walk out in national protest against gun violence

Dutch Fork students emotional during 17-minute walkout against guns

Dutch Fork High School students let their feelings be heard during the National Walkout Day in response to the Parkland, Fla., school shooting that killed 17 people.
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Dutch Fork High School students let their feelings be heard during the National Walkout Day in response to the Parkland, Fla., school shooting that killed 17 people.

Gabriella MacLeod stood on a table and read aloud a poem.

Karynton Odom typed out an email to U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Felicity Collum sent a tweet.

Christian Banks documented the scene for the school newspaper: Hundreds of Dutch Fork High School students walking out of class for 17 minutes Wednesday morning, in solidarity with high school students from around the country pleading with their adult leaders to do one thing: "Keep us safe," the teens chanted at Dutch Fork, their voices echoing loudly in the crowded hallways.

In an age of school shootings, threats and fear, they hoped their voices would be loud enough to be heard by the nation's lawmakers.

"We're all standing up for the 17 people who lost their lives in Florida," said Collum, a 16-year-old junior. "If we make a bigger impression, maybe things will change."

Most school districts in the Midlands and many across South Carolina were prepared for students to stage demonstrations as part of National Walkout Day, organized nationwide in response to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 people exactly one month ago. The day of walkouts was intended to press forward the national conversation about gun violence and school safety.

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"We're done. As students, we're standing up because nobody's really standing up for us," said Stephen Wise, Dutch Fork's 18-year-old student body president. "So we're going to stand up for ourselves, make our voices heard and show that we've had enough of this. It's time for this to never happen again."

At Dutch Fork, a school of more than 1,700 students in Irmo, several hundred students filed out of classrooms promptly at 10 a.m. Others opted to stay in their classes and take 17 minutes to reach out through emails, calls and social media messages to elected representatives including Graham, a Republican from Seneca, who recently proposed that federal courts be allowed to remove weapons from people who demonstrate a serious risk to themselves or others.

The students who walked out Wednesday are the same ones who will be voting in a couple years, and lawmakers should pay attention, Wise noted.

In her message to Graham, Odom, a 16-year-old junior, wrote, that people "who aren't mentally stable shouldn't have guns. ... There should be more education and awareness of how to use guns properly."

The Walkout Day demonstrations varied across South Carolina. Some districts discouraged students from walking out or threatened to punish students who participated. Others did not allow journalists to witness the demonstrations.

More than 300 students will face discipline for participating in walkouts in Greenville County schools, according to a reporter for the Independent Mail of Anderson. Reporters were not allowed access to Greenville County schools, the Greenville News reported.

Students at Cardinal Newman School in Columbia and other Catholic schools across the state opted for an alternative to the walkout, instead arranging a student-led service and time of prayer and encouraging students to offer 17 acts of kindness in honor of the Parkland victims.

At Airport High School in Cayce, students walked 17 laps around the track.

Students from West Columbia's Fulmer Middle School, who were on a field trip to the Fort Sumter National Monument in Charleston, unfurled an American flag in the spirit of the day's events.

Dutch Fork Principal Gerald Gary said he was proud of the way his students handled themselves during the walkout.

"Anytime they can peacefully assemble and make their voices heard, we encourage that," Gary said. "Students have to feel safe to learn. Teachers have to feel safe to teach. Parents have to feel safe to send their students to us."

Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.