A coalition of local high schoolers came together after they felt pressured by Alachua County Public Schools to not participate in the #NeverAgain walkouts.
Deandre Daniels, a sophomore at Buchholz High School, was packing up his backpack as the bell rung at the end of sixth period, the Friday after the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas high school on Feb. 14.
Then, the fire alarm went off.
“Everybody just started freaking out,” he said. “The teachers were saying, ‘Stay in class, don’t go [outside],’ cause of this fear that it might happen again.”
There had been no announcement about a fire drill earlier in the day. Even though the fire alarm turned out to be an accident — a student’s book-bag accidentally hit the fire alarm — students and teachers thought it was real.
“I had fear in me,” Daniels said. “I was like, ‘Why should I even go out? Should I just stay in class?’ … It can happen at any moment, so you gotta be ready.”
Daniels was one of over 50 students from high schools across Alachua County who marched on March 10 along Newberry Road to protest gun violence in schools and the culture of fear it has created.
The march was initially organized to protest what students view as pressure from the Alachua County Public Schools administration to not participate in the #NeverAgain walkouts, said Gavin Pinto, a junior at Buchholz High School and one of the organizers for the march.
“We’re not gonna be quiet because we don’t want this to die away.”
Pinto began planning Let Us March with students across the county two weeks ago after Buchholz’s principal met with him and his fellow student government representatives.
“That day, a few of us recognized that there was a lack of support from the school board about how we were planning the walkouts,” he said.
Pinto said the administration tried to encourage them to find another way to protest aside from walking out. He said that while he understood where the administration was coming from for safety reasons, he felt put down by the discouragement.
“They were just really trying to talk us into doing different things,” he said. “They used a few doubting words about walkouts, like they weren’t ‘effective’, words like that, and so that really showed us that they didn’t want us to do these walkouts for other reasons.”
Pinto took to social media to post about his school administration’s reaction. Then Jovanna Liuzzo — a junior at East Side High School who was starting to organize a walkout at her school on April 20 — saw his posts and reached out.
“I feel forced to have to focus on this because no one else is,” Liuzzo said. “In the wake of the shooting, I was so outraged that my friends seemed to not care, they were like, ‘Oh, this is just another one.”
Pinto and Liuzzo decided to unite forces. Together, they gathered students from their on- and offline social networks to plan Let Us March.
The group, which includes students from P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School and Gainesville High School, began to meet at each other’s houses to research permits for the march, plan a chant list, come up with slogans for the signs and gather water bottles. To get the word out, they made digital posters for the march.
At the march, Pinto and Liuzzo instructed their fellow protesters on safe practices of marching: walk slow, stay on the sidewalk and don’t block the road.
As they directed the students from the Oaks Mall, down Newberry Road to Eighth Ave and back, Pinto and Liuzzo and their fellow organizers flitted up and down the procession, leading chants through a megaphone and taking pictures for social media.
Meanwhile, a few parents followed behind.
Rachel Kerensky came to the march to support her daughter, Katy, a junior at Buchholz who was one of the main organizers.
“After the shooting in South Florida, I was afraid for Katy to go to school, and I just think something has to be done,” she said.
Scott Shrewsbury, another parent who came to support the students at the march, said his two daughters told him they were worried about getting suspended for walking out.
“I told them both, ‘Hey, if you’re doing what you believe in and you get suspended, then you get a day off,’” he said.
After a walk out at Santa Fe High School on Feb. 21, rumors began to circulate that the participating students were suspended, which organizer Emma Geon said demoralized a lot of students.
Jackie Johnson, director of communications and community initiatives for Alachua County Public schools, said that no students were suspended for walking out. She said that students would not be subject to disciplinary action for participating in a walkout as long as they remain on campus, go to a safe area designated and supervised by school administration, and don’t cause disruptions on the way there or back.
But if students want to leave campus during the school week to participate in a walkout — which these protests often entail — they must get permission from their parents through normal check-out procedures, Johnson said said.
Pinto said getting checked out defeats the purpose of the protest, but that students still want to work with the school administration in order to be safe.
“It’s really just, people are going to avoid the check out process just because we want more of a shock effect,” he said.
In the weeks since the march was planned, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill into law that would allow certain teachers who complete a training course to carry concealed weapons in the classroom. Organizers and their fellow students have realized they’re up against much more than school authority.
“Gun should not be added to schools even more,” Daniels said. “What happens if a teacher doesn’t think and brings out a gun?”
Throughout the march, the students received numerous encouraging honks from passing cars, but perhaps the most encouraging was when a white, fluffy dog began from a car window to bark in tandem with chants of “M-S-D!”
As the march neared its end, students who had just came from sitting the SAT were waiting at the Oaks Mall. With their own signs, they joined the marching students who turned with their signs to stand facing Newberry Road (some of which read: “Am I next?” Several wrote out the names of the 17 victims from Parkland).
“Columbine happened even before I was born,” Liuzzo said. “Now is the time where all of us are realizing like, we thought this was unfathomable. It keeps happening, but now we’re old enough to actually educate ourselves and get involved.”
The fact that the Parkland shooting happened so close to home made Pinto realize that it could happen at his school, he said.
“We’re not gonna be quiet because we don’t want this to die away,” he said. •