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Students who drove March for Our Lives must decide what’s next

By David Smiley and Kyra Gurney • Updated Mar 26, 2018 at 2:21 PM

WASHINGTON—With the cameras gone from Pennsylvania Avenue and the throngs of protesters who marched on Washington back home, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have a new challenge to confront.

What’s next?

After spending the past five weeks grieving classmates lost in a gunman’s attack at their school and launching a national movement against gun violence, thousands of Parkland teenagers will return to something resembling normal. After spring break this week, classes will resume (even if backpacks must now be clear plastic) and the crush of media that followed their every step is likely to disperse to chase the next big story.

But students from the Broward County, Fla., suburb didn’t spend the weekend lobbying Congress and leading a huge crowd — estimates range from 200,000 to 1.3 million — only to go home and quietly move on. Throughout the weekend, they made it clear in interviews that they have ideas on how to stop gun violence, and that they’ve only started.

“Marjory Stoneman Douglas kids are the ones who started this. But we’re not going to be the ones who finish it. We have so many people who are with us,” said senior Emma Gonzalez, who’s become something of a political icon since the Feb. 14 attack at her school.

Though opinions on what should be done with gun laws — and how — vary widely even among students and Parkland families, and many have started their own organizations to address gun violence and school shootings, the clearest path toward gun control is through voter registration and working with other teenagers around the country. Ryan Deitsch, one of the 18 students behind March for Our Lives, said the well-funded organization plans to spend its resources on voter outreach and messaging.

“We need to make sure everybody registers, pre-registers and shows up at the polls, because our youth in this country don’t vote,” he said. “They’ve been fear-mongered and basically fooled into not voting. And we’re tired of this BS.”

Deitsch said he and his friends have connected with students in other parts of the country. Two weeks after the attack, they invited students from Chicago to Gonzalez’s house to talk to them about their own experience with shootings. On Thursday, they visited students at Thurgood Marshall Academy Washington, two of whose classmates have been killed in the past year in off-campus shootings.

“We want to further our cause and make sure that everybody who wants the platform to speak, who has something important to say about this, that they get that chance,” Deitsch said shortly before Saturday’s rally began. “We have kids from Chicago here. We have kids from Maryland. We have kids from Virginia.”

Their organization, which as a 501c4 nonprofit can spend money politically, had received at least $5.4 million in donations before the march. On “Face the Nation” Sunday, the students said they plan to focus on the coming midterm elections but wouldn’t endorse candidates.

For students like Deitsch and Gonzalez — who thinks her shaved head has something to do with her rise to stardom — returning to the life they knew before the shootings would probably be impossible. Their faces are now internationally recognized.

But there are thousands of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and their futures and plans crisscross and diverge in many directions. Many are still planning for prom and applying to college. They may be activists with a heavy burden, but they’re still teenagers.

In the days leading up to the march, senior Aly Sheehy, 18, said that what she had been most excited about was the prospect of spending a few days on a trip with her friends. Under ordinary circumstances, Friday — which many Parkland students spent lobbying lawmakers — would have been the start of spring break.

“I was so excited to spend this amount of time with my friends and just hanging out with each other and just not having any obligations to do because it’s also our spring break,” she said Saturday morning at a hotel in Arlington, Va.

Since the shooting, the simple act of getting up in the morning and going to class had become a challenge, Sheehy said. “Now, I don’t feel safe going to school,” she said. “I don’t feel comfortable going, and it’s something like every day I kind of have to drag myself.”

Jalen Martin, a 17-year-old senior, said “a lot of us are graduating. We’re going to go off to college.” But he figures they’ll continue their activism through new groups, expanding their cause to universities around the country.

On the morning before the March for Our Lives, the Parkland students were already thinking about their next steps.

Sophomore Nicolas Fraser, 16, wore a Gun Safety Voter shirt — “Future voter,” he said — as he ate breakfast at the hotel alongside his friend Ashley Baez, 15, who was still recovering from being shot in the leg.

“It’s definitely bigger than what we thought it would be,” Fraser said, referring to how quickly the #NeverAgain movement had grown. “Democracy, it’s about the people, so the government won’t be able to hold out (on gun control) much longer, especially when kids are able to vote.”

He thought it was also important to “keep communicating” with students from around the country. “This is not going to take a week,” Fraser said.

Senior Ariel Braunstein, 18, said the shooting and the movement it spawned would drive students to vote. “If anything has kicked us into high gear to do so, this has,” she said.

Stoneman Douglas students are focused on turning their social movement into a political one because they know that Congress, as currently composed, is unlikely to support the change that most are seeking. Over and over this weekend, they were reminded how remarkable it was that the House and Senate approved legislation funding school safety projects and encouraging a stronger background check system — legislation too weak to satisfy the students.

Waiting outside a Senate office building Friday morning in an overcoat, student Demitri Hoth said young people will make sure that politicians who don’t support their cause “have no future.”

But not everyone from the school agrees with that position. Two hours into Saturday’s rally, Stoneman Douglas sophomore Zach Cooper, 16, said he thought the rhetoric of the movement had become counterproductive. “They’re saying it’s not about politics,” he said, but he felt that it clearly was.

Cooper said he also didn’t agree with the sharp attacks leveled at Republican politicians, who had been booed by the crowd. “I think, have a little more respect for them,” he said, adding that if the students continued to lambaste Republican lawmakers, they were less likely to get a compromise on gun control.

Andrew Pollack, father of shooting victim Meadow Pollack, released a Facebook video Saturday saying his son wanted to speak at a March For our Lives event but was denied because he didn’t share the same views. Ryan Petty, who lost his daughter, Alaina JoAnn Petty, said on Twitter Sunday morning that his daughter’s memorial in Parkland had been politicized by marchers, who planted political posters around flowers and pinwheels.

Martin, the Parkland senior, is pre-registered to vote as a Republican and seemed unimpressed with the speech former Vice President Joe Biden delivered to some of the students before they broke into small groups to lobby lawmakers.

“It’s not going to be a straight line, but I promise you, I promise you, I promise you if you keep this (up) and coordinate it you are going to win,” Biden told the students. “We, the American public, is going to be better off. Because what you’re asking for is rational. There’s nothing irrational about it. You’re not talking about repealing the Second Amendment.”

After listening to the speech, Martin said there was “no doubt in my mind” that Biden was planning to run for president in 2020. “So, campaign stop?” he said.

Still, the movement that has emerged out of Parkland has been overwhelmingly in favor of banning assault rifles and creating a universal background check system. At Saturday’s march, voter registration groups roamed the crowds, offering to pre-register anyone over the age of 15.

“This doesn’t end here,” said Stoneman Douglas senior Garrett Knobel, 18, who had come to the march for his friend Joaquin Oliver, one of the 17 killed during the high school shooting. “This isn’t the last they’re hearing from us.”

Democratic lawmakers, who’ve done little to pass a gun-control agenda since a now-expired assault weapons ban in 1994, appeared genuinely excited to see the outpouring of student activism. Outside a reception she hosted Friday afternoon for marchers from Broward County, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., said students “will ignite our ability to achieve” gun control legislation.

“I think this is an issue that no matter what party you affiliate with, this is an issue for this election cycle in particular that every candidate in America is going to have to answer that question. These kids are not going to let these candidates wriggle out of the answer to the question: Are you going to put the NRA as a higher priority than my life?”

Some Parkland students are already finding ways to make that a defining question for voters. Juniors Adam Buchwald and Zach Hibshman founded “Parents Promise to Kids” after the shootings, an organization that gets parents to sign a contract vowing not to vote for politicians who don’t support stricter gun control laws. The parents pose for a picture with their kids, holding the contract, and post it on social media.

About 1,200 people have signed the contract, they said Sunday. Buchwald and Hibshman were planning to share a list of approved politicians, but weren’t yet sure whether they’d come up with their own list or share one created by a gun safety group.

“What parent would ever break a promise to their children?” Adam said. “This movement is really giving any child under 18 a voice at the ballot box…We’re giving the child a voice by their parent signing this contract.”

Back on Pennsylvania Avenue Saturday, Gonzalez was talking to reporters, giggling about the music she’d helped pick out ahead of the rally and dismissing talk of the students creating their own political party. She said their plans are far more humble, and about much more than themselves.

“We just hope that our topic gets brought forth strong enough that it can be voted and discussed in the House of Representatives, Senate, anywhere,” she said, adding: “We’re going to have so many people in the future who are with us.”

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©2018 Miami Herald

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