About 70 Richmond County students walked out of classes Wednesday, joining thousands across the country protesting gun violence in schools and earning themselves black marks on their discipline records.
Loosely organized by students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the national Women’s March movement, and driven by social media, the nationwide walkout was intended to mark the one-month anniversary of 17 shooting deaths at the high school in Parkland, Florida.
“It just hit me that some of the students (at Douglas High School) were my age that got shot,” said Shelbie Ferguson, 14, an eighth-grader who walked out of class at Rockingham Middle School. “I wanted to show my respect for (them).”
Shelbie said she knew she would receive her first-ever in-school suspension if she left English class: Her teacher told her she would when she stood to tell him she was leaving. Still, she went, joining those leaving other classes temporarily.
Some teachers, she heard, appeared angry when students walked out; others seemed to grant approval.
Shelbie’s mother, Tammy, knew about the walkout before it occurred and applauded her daughter’s stand “100 percent.”
“If that’s what you need to do, that’s OK,” she told Shelbie when the idea first came up several days ago. “If you get in trouble, that’s OK.”
In retrospect, though, Ferguson called her daughter’s in-school suspension “just crazy, to me.”
For seventh-grader Bailey Chavis, the walkout marked “the first time I’ve ever stood up” in protest.
“If it happened at my school, I would have been really upset,” she said, contemplating the friends she might have lost.
Chavis said she received a discipline slip that noted she would serve ISS for cutting class, specifically to protest.
Senior Jeremiah Johnson rendezvoused in the circle near the cafeteria at Richmond Senior High School with others leaving class, as Principal Jim Butler informed them all they would receive suspensions — although Jeremiah said that would not be certain until Friday.
“I stood up for people (and) showed my respect,” Johnson said. The shooting “needs to stop. People are dying at a young age.”
Senior Jasmine Baldwin also joined the protest, holding hands and praying silently for those in Parkland. Although Principal Butler promised suspensions, she and senior Tyshanae Ward agreed that Butler seemed proud the students had stood up for what they believed in.
The local walkout involved “around 40 kids” at Richmond Senior High School, 23 at Rockingham Middle School, four at Richmond Early College High School and three at the Richmond County Ninth Grade Academy, said schools spokeswoman Briana Goins.
Goins said that “all principals reported that students left class at 10 … were very orderly and reported back to class as soon as the 17 minutes were over.” But those who walked out, she said, “will be punished just as they would for cutting a class for any other reason.”
Schools Superintendent Cindy Goodman said that “while I am proud of the way that our students conducted themselves, and certainly agree with eliminating school violence, it is our responsibility to uphold the student code of conduct.
“We cannot be placed in the position to choose whether or not to endorse issues students may want to protest.”
Richmond County native and N.C. Democratic Party chair Wayne Goodwin said in a Facebook post Wednesday afternoon that he was “inspired by the strength and courage of the young people across the state who walked out of school today to make their voices heard in the fight against gun violence.”
The News & Observer published reports of thousands of students walking out in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. The Charlotte Observer also said thousands had walked out in Mecklenberg County.
Those who commented on the walkout on the Daily Journal’s Facebook page were of divided opinions, with some calling those who walked out entitled brats and others defending the students’ First Amendment freedoms.
Organizers had urged students to leave class at 10 a.m. local time and stay out for 17 minutes, marking the time the Parkland shooting occurred and the number of deaths that resulted.
Nationally, the protests — some of which left school campuses and sent sign-carrying students into the streets — were intended to pressure Congress to approve gun-control legislation.
Some school districts welcomed or even tacitly encouraged the walkouts. Others, like Richmond County Schools, said they would impose disciplinary action against participants.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]