How the Parkland teens spearheaded a worldwide movement

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Gun reform rallies planned in Washington and more than 800 sister marches around the world Saturday

Staff and Wire Reports

PARKLAND, Fla. — There is a flurry of activity in Parkland as a forklift heaves boxes of risers and barricades and a man climbs precariously high above lightning scaffolding. A 17-year-old student stands on a small platform directing it all, surrounded by nine classmates as they prepare for a march that could bring 30,000 supporters alongside a worldwide movement.

In the wake of the Valentine’s Day shooting that killed 17, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students have been hailed for their grass-roots movement that passed comprehensive gun reform in Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature and spawned school walkouts earlier this month with more than 1 million students participating across the country. They’ve been on the cover of Time magazine and garnered celebrity support from Oprah Winfrey, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga as they prepare for a Washington march and more than 800 sister marches around the world Saturday.

“We’re just regular students,” said Casey Sherman, a junior at Douglas who is spearheading the effort. “There’s students all across the world that are doing this. It’s hard to believe that somebody as seemingly small or unimportant in the grand scheme of things can do such amazing and great things. The scale that this has become is immeasurable.”

In the weeks since the shooting, she’s led meetings in hotel ballrooms directing adults on how to proceed, petitioned commissioners for a city permit, mapped out a march route with police, organized vendors and monitored fundraising.

She addressed a crowd of reporters Thursday night, speaking with ease as she discussed parking, shuttle buses and other logistics for the march she says is the heart of the movements, a mile from the school where mounds of flowers and white crosses still stand to memorialize the victims. A 90-minute rally will be held at the park where a candlelight vigil was held the night after the shooting before gatherers walk to the school.

Sherman was mum about the speaker and performance line-up, saying only that “it’s going to be a very different feel.”

Seventeen year-old classmates Sam Resnick and Johnny Greenberg have spent hours developing a smartphone app for the Parkland march, Be Heard, to share logistics with participants.

“We want to see more legislation changed so no other communities have to go through this,” said Resnick.

Freshman Christine Yared says she’s spent “almost every hour” handling the social media for the Parkland march.

Sherman and her classmates who are organizing the Washington march say a major goal is voter registration as they look to harness the support for March For Our Lives into change at the polls for mid-term elections.

“We can demand the change but we have to follow through with it,” said Sari Kaufman, a 15-year-old sophomore overseeing voter registration.

Sherman, who has volunteered with Jewish service organization Mitzvah Corp, structured volunteers into six teams including fundraising, logistics and publicity, appointing student leaders at the helm. Broward County Property Appraiser Marty Kiar encouraged the students to get the city, county and school board behind the event and showed them the ropes of local government.

“They inspire me. I just came up with a couple of ideas, helped make some introductions,” said Kiar, a former state lawmaker. “They were like the closers that came on strong.”

These students and their supporters across the country are planning to participate Saturday in the March for Our Lives to protest gun violence.

The main event will be in Washington, D.C., where nearly 1 million people are expected to participate in what could become one of the largest marches in history, but there are more than 800 sister marches planned across the United States and the world.

Students from five high schools in the Canton, Ohio, area will meet at noon Saturday for their own march in the city’s Market Square.

Carissa Baer, a Hoover High School junior, is one of the organizers.

“I am hoping that this rally will spread awareness about how gun violence is affecting our communities, the children in our schools and how we can all come together to stop gun violence from affecting anyone else,” she said. “I am also hoping that this rally will invoke politicians to push an effective bill before Congress, in hopes that they will address these issues.”

The students are being advised by Action Together Stark, which is helping with logistics.

Natalie Dhyanchand, a fellow organizer and student, said the feedback has been positive.

“Many students I have spoken to are in support of the march,” she said. “Even if they cannot speak or help organize it, I know many who wish to attend.

“We hope that this event will catch the attention of those in power and show them the masses of people in support of this change … we are also inviting Ohio’s politicians and urging them to promote change on the state level.”

Dhyanchand said the event also will serve as a platform to encourage people to register to vote.

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Six students in Greenboro, N.C., took the lead on organizing their own local march, which will be from 2 to 6 p.m. Saturday, starting in the city’s Government Plaza and ending at nearby LeBauer Park.

Anne Joy Cahill-Swenson, 14; Nico Gleason, 15; Dominic Patafie, 17; Cameron Neale, 14; Maura Toole, 14; and Claire Haile, 14; represent seven schools in Guilford County, N.C. They came together after Cahill-Swenson, a student at Grimsley High School, heard about the D.C. march and realized one hadn’t been planned for Greensboro.

While she hasn’t planned for an event like this before, that hasn’t deterred Cahill-Swenson from getting behind the movement.

“We are planning this event because we are absolutely horrified by the sheer amount of gun violence and mass shootings that happen in general, but especially in schools, and obviously in wake of the Parkland shooting,” Cahill-Swenson said. “This movement of March for Our Lives rose up from the Parkland students, and we think it is incredibly important to take action because it is an issue that is actually solvable, and it is important for us to fight for that issue to be solved because it puts our lives in danger and it puts students across the country’s lives in danger on a daily basis if we don’t solve this and take action.”

The six have been working every day to make sure that their event runs as smoothly as possible, which includes designing and handing out fliers, and speaking before officials to promote their march.

“Every moment that we are not either doing school work or sports or whatever is pretty much dedicated to this,” Gleason said. “We have had great community outreach from businesses and people.”

The group gave one last word of advice for anyone who wants to make a difference, whether they attend a March for Our Lives event or not: Vote.

“Voting is incredibly important,” Cahill-Swenson said. “We are focusing on this and we have people who are going to register to vote but it is incredibly important for everyone to get out there. Midterms are generally not well attended by voters at all. Everyone needs to turn out for these midterms. That includes teens, pre-registering and registering to vote, and really showing the representatives that this is something that we don’t want to happen but needs to happen and demand it to happen.”

“Change is coming,” Patafie added, “because you can silence a lot of things, but it is a lot harder to silence a vote.”

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The common council of Rome, N.Y., approved a resolution supporting Rome Free Academy students organizing a local march.

“I support this movement,” Ward 6 Councilman Riccardo Dursi Jr. said. “I support everything going on. If my schedule allows it, I will be there in support of the kids’ voice. We may not agree on everything, but I agree that they need to be heard. I agree that everyone needs to understand that there’s more to this than just one instance in Florida or a Second Amendment.”

A number of students from RFA showed up to the meeting to ask the council to support the walk, which will coincide with the national march in Washington, D.C.

The students said the march demonstrates that they stand with those kids in Parkland, Florida, after 17 people were killed in the Feb. 14 shooting.

“The tragedies of this magnitude have been occurring for years,” said RFA junior Michaella Janes, 16. “The outrage sparked by the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, has been impossible to ignore — even despite the fear that has been prevalent in our schools nationally since the occurrence. … We decided to organize a March for our Lives event here in Rome, New York, in order to show solidarity with the students who will go to Washington, D.C., on March 24. It is our hope that regardless of partisan divide, all of us can be united under the common goal of making our schools as safe as possible for teachers and students alike.”

The resolution solely shows that the council supports the local march and the students participating in the event. Ward 4 Councilwoman Ramona Smith has been working with the students on organizing the march and said the students have shown dedication so far in organizing the walkout Wednesday and the March 24 event.

“I’m really impressed with your professionalism, your commitment, the hard work and time that you’re spending on this particular cause,” she said. “One thing I just want to remind you about is if you really believe in your cause, even after the march, you’re going to continue to work on it until you get the change that you want.”

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GateHouse Media and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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