Memphis high school students walking out of class this week to protest gun violence plan to return with practical suggestions for how local schools can improve school security.

The walkouts on Thursday will honor the 19th anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, where 13 people were killed. About 20 Memphis-area high schools will participate in the event as part of a national walkout, according to student organizers. A few additional Memphis schools will hold a walkout on Friday.

The protests are a response to the killing of 17 people in Parkland, Florida, in February. Since the school shootings, students around the country have demanded lawmakers take action against gun violence.

More than 20 area students began planning the walkout in March, after students missed the initial wave of walkouts following the tragic Parkland shootings because Memphis schools were on spring break.

This time, students are preparing for more than a walkout. To honor those killed, the program will include 17 minutes of silence.  But students also plan to gather in front of their schools to participate in youth-led “know your rights” discussions around topics ranging from police violence to sexual harassment to education. Some schools will also feature speakers, balloon releases, songs, and spoken word performances.

Throughout, students will be gathering suggestions on solutions for gun violence and school safety via the social media hashtag #youthsolutions901. (The number 901 is the primary area code for Memphis.) They will also register students to vote.

Savanah Thompson, one of the student organizers, said they will take these recommendations to the Shelby County School board meeting on April 24.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson met with student leaders from Shelby County Schools and other Memphis-area schools to discuss their planned walkout.
PHOTO CREDIT: Shelby County Schools

“These students represent all that is right in our youth,” Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson said during a presentation from students on Tuesday. Hopson promised students wouldn’t be punished for walking out.

Thursday’s protest will come on the heels of a chaotic week of state testing. Natalia Powers, spokeswoman for the Memphis district, said principals were advised to consider rearranging testing schedules to avoid timing conflicts with the walkouts.

“Even though most of our high schools are participating, their programs or activities are taking place during the last hour of their school day to avoid conflicts with the test,” since most testing happens in the morning, Powers said.

One Memphis student said seeing the bravery of Parkland students is what inspired her to get involved with the protest.

“Seeing all the survivors from Florida who are speaking up impacted me,” said Amal Altareb, a senior at Central High School.  “It made me question — what am I doing? What’s my influence? I don’t know if what I do on Thursday will be a big help, but I do know we’re part of this bigger movement.”