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Tuesday, Aug 14, 2018
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Tampa Bay students voice opinions on gun laws during school walkouts

Nicole Leary and Taylor Redington stood outside St. Petersburg High School on Friday morning with parents and protesters who had gathered with bullhorns and signs.

In a few minutes they would lead about 70 students on a walk to City Hall, joining others from around the Tampa Bay area for a day of advocating for safer schools and less gun violence.

The demonstration, part of the National School Walkout, came on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado.

Police officers on bicycles flanked the group from St. Petersburg High, who wore an assortment of T-shirts as they shouted chants. Residents in the city’s Kenwood neighborhood stepped out of their houses to record the teens on their phones, flash them a thumbs-up or shake their heads disapprovingly.

Redington and Leary, skeptical at first about walking out of school, were reassured when principal Darlene Lebo told parents they could give permission for their children to participate.

"Our priority is safety and we want to make sure that all students are accounted for," Lebo wrote in an email to parents.

Not all students felt as supported.

At Tampa’s Plant High, where demonstrations by pro-gun reform and pro-gun rights students formed at opposite sides of the school, some were disappointed in their principal. Brooke Shapiro, a senior and one of the organizers of Tampa’s successful March For Our Lives on March 24, was one of them.

"Though we had a decent amount of students participate in the walkout, many were discouraged by the fact that those who stayed out longer than 30 minutes would be given two days of out-of-school suspension," Shapiro said after the demonstration ended.

The students tried to stage a sit-in on the football field, but were told they risked being suspended for 10 days if they persisted, Shapiro said.

A video shows an administrator urging the Plant students to return to class and warning that they risked suspension. It circulated widely on Twitter.

"We were really upset," Shapiro said. "We’re even more upset now. We wish to be heard and we cannot believe our school wishes to silence us."

Plant students in favor of gun owners’ rights were allowed to meet at the school’s flagpole. For them, Friday was a chance to get their point across after months of seeing the gun reform crowd dominate the media. Their demonstration included chants of "USA! USA!"

"We didn’t want them to be the only ones representing Plant," organizer Ernie Sampera, a 16-year-old sophomore, said. "We wanted to show that there’s more opinions here."

At Lennard High in Ruskin, students took part in "kindness walks" around the athletic track during their lunch periods.

At Riverview High, an early morning demonstration included parents, teachers and students who carried signs with slogans such as "Teach respect, not Duck & Cover" and "Arm me with compassion."

About 100 students gathered outside Hillsborough High for poems, speeches and chants of "Hey ho, NRA has got to go."

They said the event helped them feel they had a voice.

"I hope to see a lot more security when it comes to people coming in and out of the school," said Makayla Brown, who works on the student newspaper and yearbook.

Marin Fehl, however, said it was important that school not feel like a jail. "We come here to learn, not to be prisoners," she said.

By noon, the St. Petersburg marchers had arrived at City Hall, where boxes of pizza were stacked and ready to be eaten.

The students were greeted by Mayor Rick Kriseman and U.S. Rep Charlie Crist.

Crist called for a ban on assault rifles.

"The way and reason it’s going to happen is because of these young people," he said. "That’s the difference-maker this time."

Ashley Ballestra, an 18-year-old senior at St. Petersburg’s Shorecrest Preparatory School, attended the rally and then registered to vote.

"I feel it’s unacceptable that we have to be afraid for our lives, and it’s up to us to make sure this doesn’t happen to other schools," she said.

That was the common refrain, despite the many mass shootings that have passed without effecting change.

"This time is different because we haven’t forgotten," said Rebecca Simard, 17, a student at Canterbury School of Florida.

"We refuse to forget and move on with our lives."

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