High school students around the country plan to travel to Washington, D.C., on Saturday for the March For Our Lives. They're calling on Congress to take action to end gun violence in schools.
Tommy Murray, a junior at Newtown High School, is part of a student group formed in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
Murray says he feels it's his responsibility to be part of what he thinks will be an historic march. “It kind of like brings back the emotions that we had during Sandy Hook. But since students are older now, the students in my high school are older now, they feel responsible to actually do something.”
Other students are organizing rallies in their hometowns across the country.
Avalon Fenster is a 16-year-old sophomore at the Stony Brook School and the lead organizer for the solidarity rally in Huntington, Long Island. She began to organize the rally in the days and weeks after the Parkland shooting. She posted on Instagram and started Facebook groups. She doesn’t want the next generation of students to have the same fears she does.
“I constantly, whenever I’m in class, sometimes my mind will drift off to, ‘What window would I jump out of if someone came into this room and started shooting? What’s the nearest closet I could hide in if my life were in danger?’ and my 12-year-old brother has told me he thinks the same thing and that’s not okay, and that has to change. ”
Once the word got out, students, parents and other Long Islanders came forward to volunteer.
While the students are leading the way, adults like Avalon’s mom, Julia Fenster, are providing support and logistics for the event.
She says it’s a watershed moment. “I do think this moment is quite different, and I think the power of the core team of survivors in Parkland have created more than a moment, they’ve turned it into a movement.”
The rally has been co-sponsored by gun control advocates, including New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. Board member Mary Beth Baxter says, “It’s one of the few marches I’ve seen where the students are actually hands on in doing all of the work themselves. We couldn’t be prouder of them.”
For some students the rally is their first foray into activism.
Sarah Kopp, a senior at Cold Spring Harbor High School, says her school has received threats, and she feels strongly about gun violence.
“I think there was never a way for students to get involved like there is now. And now it’s such a youth-led movement that it’s easy to get involved. It makes me want to go to the march, it makes me want to do all the protests that are coming up, and it makes me want to lobby policymakers for some kind of change.”
Critics of the movement say the protests and walkouts distract from a student’s education.
But Avalon Fenster says the march is about more than that.
“Of course, we should be worrying about homework, but we should also be worrying about our lives. When our educational environment is making it impossible for us to feel safe, that’s going to impede our education if we don’t feel safe where we are. So I think that politicians that are mocking us, who are making a joke out of this issue, out of this national movement, they need to take a better look at their own priorities and their own values.”
Avalon doesn’t want the march to be the be all and end all for the movement. For her, real change will require changes at the ballot box.
“I’m also hoping to see newer and younger candidates stepping up to the plates because they know these issues better than anyone. They know about growing up in a lockdown drill generation. They’ve been there.”
Organizers will be registering eligible voters at the rally. Hundreds are expected to show up in Huntington on Saturday.
Julia Fenster says that school violence is not a partisan issue. “It’s really to bring us together regardless of what party you’re affiliated with. And say that we’re all committed to moving this issue forward and making sure that our kids and the community at large are not scared anymore.”
Republican Congressman Pete King and Democrat Tom Suozzi from Long Island will be attending a separate rally together in Farmingdale.
There are multiple marches in New York and Connecticut, including in New York City and Hartford.