'Our friends are dying, so we march'

WASHINGTON - On Thursday morning, a curious scene emerged on Pennsylvania Avenue: Between the throngs of tourists snapping photos of the Washington Monument and commuters rushing to work, high school students pushed their way toward the White House.

At 9 a.m., hundreds of teenagers from the District and suburban Maryland and northern Virginia left their classrooms and headed to the U.S. Capitol to protest gun violence.

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"No more!" students chanted while holding signs that read, "I should be writing my college essay, not my will" and "Am I next?"

The demonstration came a year to the day after thousands of students in the District of Columbia region participated in a national walkout to protest gun violence. Student activists were spurred to action by a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead.

Survivors of the shooting channeled their grief last year into a formidable wave of activism that inspired students throughout the country to advocate for stricter gun control. That movement culminated on March 24 last year, when hundreds of thousands of people converged on Washington to attend the March for Our Lives, an event organized by survivors of the Florida shooting to raise awareness of gun violence.

The focus of Thursday's demonstration was federal legislation requiring universal background checks for firearm sales that awaits a vote in the Senate, following House approval.

"We are here today because we have to be, because we have been failed by every institution that didn't protect us," Dani Miller, co-president of the Maryland group MoCo Students for Change, told the crowd. Miller's group organized Thursday's demonstration.

"Our friends are dying, so we march," Miller said.

After 17 minutes of silence to honor those killed in the Parkland massacre, protesters packed Pennsylvania Avenue and made their way to the U.S. Capitol.

Diego Garzon, a 17-year-old junior at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Maryland, said he decided to attend the walkout after experiencing a shooting threat at his old school.

"It was one of the scariest days of my life. I want to take action and go to school knowing I'm going to be safe," Garzon said.

Their colorful signs and enthusiastic chants attracted plenty of attention from people walking by, who stopped to take photos of the students or give them high-fives.

Joelle Cornelius, a teacher from Wellington, Florida, was leading a fifth-grade field trip when she noticed demonstrators marching up the street. She parted from her group to thank the students.

Cornelius said the demonstration moved her and her students.

"They're showing kids that you have the right to protest, you can do it peacefully, and that just because you're kids doesn't mean you can't make a difference," said Cornelius, whose students attend a school not far from Stoneman Douglas High and were left distraught by the shooting.

Hannah Jones, an 18-year-old senior at Wakefield High in Arlington, Virginia, attended the demonstration last year and organized students at her school to participate in this year's walkout. Jones said the school has shown increased support for student activism, allowing students to receive an excused absence - with parental permission - if they wanted to participate in the walkout.

"It's really rewarding. It makes me feel like my work is paying off," Jones said. "Now we need a federal law to back up this progress."

Students from Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland will receive an unexcused absence for participating in the walkout, said Superintendent Jack Smith. Participating students from District Public Schools were granted an excused absence with parental permission, according to a school system representative.

Upon arriving at the Capitol, students fanned out and sought shade. The crowd thinned as speakers continued to take the stage, but the mood remained upbeat as students mingled and danced to a live band playing nearby.

Survivors of gun violence and activists shared their experiences from the stage. The crowd was silent as Giselle Morch recounted losing her teenage son, JC, to gun violence.

"You should be at dances and games, not marches and protests," she said. "But you're doing important work."

Elected officials stepped out of the Capitol to address the crowd. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., encouraged students to hold their elected officials accountable.

"We have handed over the keys of the movement to you. You're in charge of making sure we save millions of lives in this country," Murphy said.

Miller, of MoCo Students for Change, said she hopes student activists will use the energy from the walkout to fuel the fight for stricter gun control.

"We're going to keep fighting, lobbying, writing letters, honoring the lives of victims and make sure we do everything we can to get this done," she said.

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