Hundreds of students organized a walk-out Monday afternoon at John Marshall High School to protest gun violence and to rally against state legislation that could relax gun restrictions in Ohio.
The demonstration was inspired by the loss of 12 Cleveland Metropolitan School District students–all shot and killed this school year.
Braving the cold drizzle, students marched around the school grounds, many of them carrying handmade signs. Students yelled the chants heard in many school yards across the country in recent years:
“No more silence, end gun violence” and “Protect kids, not guns.”
A group of about 20 student leaders, who organized this event on their own, led the crowd into the school cafeteria for an assembly featuring several guest speakers–leaders of an anti-gang violence community group, anti-gun violence activists, and a Cleveland schools graduate who survived a gunshot to the head while she was a student.
Students share their stories
That graduate, Makayla Barlow, told students her story of being shot while driving from school and urged them not to be afraid to share their stories. She said many adults in power don’t know what students today are experiencing. This wasn’t Makayla’s first time speaking to students–she also spoke at a Civics symposium on gun violence last December for students from across the district.
As the assembly continued, organizers read anonymous testimonies from fellow John Marshall students about how gun violence had changed their lives. One student lost a father and grew up with a single parent. Another shared that learning that a relative had been shot to death made them afraid to walk to school. More testimonials like these were read aloud, and even more were submitted than could be shared in one sitting, the organizers said.
Sophomore Randall Henry chose to read his own testimony to the crowd. He said he lost his auntie in 2020,when she was shot while in her car at a red light. In 2022, he said, a friend he thought of as a cousin was shot and killed in front of Rhodes High School.
“He was loved by many…. This incident traumatized me and left his mother, brother, family and friends hurt,” he said.
‘Something should be done’
Mustafa Isse and Chaviel Davis, both seniors at John Marshall School of Information Technology, came up with the idea of a walk-out raising awareness about gun violence after a frightening incident at their school in February.
“There was a big fight that happened [at school]. Then a student that was involved went on social media and threatened to bring guns. Everyone was scared, and some students didn’t even show up to school. And that’s when we were all just like, ‘Something should be done’,” Davis told Signal Cleveland.
During the assembly Isse read the names of fellow students who lost their lives this year.
“Reading all the names is shocking,” Isse said. He told Signal Cleveland the most recent name added to the list was Kanye Williams, who was shot and killed April 6.
Putting in the work
Mary Brown, the Environmental Science teacher at John Marshall, helped Isse and Davis organize the event. She put them in contact with the school’s three principals, who arranged for t-shirts for the event and coordinated the logistics.
While the staff and administration were all-in, the event was largely the work of students. Both Isse and Davis are part of their school’s chapter of Civics 2.0, a district-wide after-school program where students in grades 8-12 learn and blog about government, politics and community activism. The two organizers brought the idea to the civics team at John Marshall and the planning began.
Davis said she spent hours putting this together, but it’s been worth it.
“Honestly I have not seen the inside of a class in so long because we’ve been so busy planning this,” she said. “It shows that we are taking this seriously and taking action. Even us seniors, we are missing our classes just to get the word out about this issue. We’re trying to fight for what we believe is right.”
Civics 2.0 students across the district have spent much of this school year discussing strategies to reduce gun violence in Cleveland schools and neighborhoods. Several students, including Isse and others from John Marshall, traveled to Columbus during their spring break to speak to legislators about gun violence and to lobby against the passage of HB 51, a bill that would let Ohio opt out of federal gun control measures.
A student-led assembly sets the stage for change
The student organizers brought powerful voices to the stage, and, with them, avenues for students in the cafeteria to take action.
One guest speaker, who goes by Crosby, is a member of the local gang-violence prevention and intervention group Renounce and Denounce. He told the students in the audience that just by hosting this event, or even showing up, they are recognizing the seriousness of the gun violence problem, which is a step in the right direction. Douglas said this gathering is evidence of the work of community organizations like his.
“Not only are we being seen, now we’re being heard,” he said. He told students to come up at the end of the event to get information about Renounce and Denounce’s work and to learn about opportunities to volunteer or share their testimonies with other Cleveland youth.
Mayor Justin Bibb also made an appearance at the assembly, and he came with a request.
“In this country, gun violence is the leading cause of death of children. You all have a powerful voice to change that,” he said. He asked 11th- and 12th-grade students in the audience to raise their hands and told them to go over to the Board of Elections to register to vote in the 2024 election.
“We can elect members of Congress in D.C. to pass background checks, red flag laws, and to have an assault weapons ban in Congress.”
A reminder to check in with fellow students
Keeping with the spirit of the power of young people, the civics students ended the event by asking the student body to offer additional thoughts or testimonies.
A ninth grader in the School of Engineering at John Marshall, Jorge Garcia, came to the stage and asked his classmates to remember to check in with one another, especially since so many of his peers had just shared their own traumatic experiences with gun violence.
“We really don’t take the time out of our days to ask about each others’ mental health or to call to check up on each other,” Garcia shared. “We sit here and laugh, and we kick it, but we need to be real and and really figure out what’s going on with each other.”
This article was updated to correct the name of the speaker from Renounce and Denounce. The speaker was Crosby, not Laron Douglas.