Christie Gillies says she’s waited long enough for adults to do something about the carnage and fear wreaked by school shootings.

For her and many other Maine teenagers, the killing of 17 people by a 19-year-old gunman at a Parkland, Florida, high school last month was the tipping point. She read about kids her own age gunned down in their school and saw teenage survivors become spokespeople for gun control, convincing her that she could and should become involved in the cause.

“A fire alarm goes off in school, and you don’t know whether to go outside or hide in a closet. That’s scary,” said Gillies, 18, one of the organizers of a walkout at Cape Elizabeth High School to protest gun violence. “It’s easier for teenagers to have access to a gun than to get a driver’s license. That’s scary.”

Anna Raley, 16, a sophomore at Greely High School, says she wants to help change things “to make people feel safe.” Staff photo by Gabe Souza

On Wednesday, Maine teenagers will lead walkouts and rallies at some 40 schools from Berwick to Machias as part of the nationwide #Enough National School Walkout to End Gun Violence. For many, it’s their first foray into activism. They say they’ve taken up the cause of gun control now because they see school shootings as something that could happen anywhere, including their schools, and were inspired by the Parkland students who called out politicians for not doing more to fix America’s gun violence problem.

Many of the organizers of the Maine walkouts are top students who have long been interested and involved in other social issues – Gillies is on a sexual assault awareness committee – but say the gun violence debate is a chance for them to go toe-to-toe with adults and make a difference.

THE BEGINNING OF A MOVEMENT

Nationally, teenagers are getting involved in dramatic numbers. Walkouts will be held at more than 2,200 schools around the country Wednesday, likely involving tens of thousands of students, maybe more. Nothing has spurred such widespread teen activism since the Vietnam War, and these events could mark the beginning of a youth movement in the gun control debate.

The walkouts are being held exactly one month after the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. The date for the walkouts was set by Women’s March Youth Empower, a teen-led branch of the group that organized last year’s Women’s March on Washington, D.C. According to the group’s website and news releases, the purpose of the walkouts, which are scheduled for 10 a.m. and are supposed to last 17 minutes to honor the 17 dead, is to bring attention to gun violence and to demand that Congress pass stricter gun laws. The Women’s March website allows students to sign up their schools and offers tips on how to hold a walkout, including talking to school officials and alerting local media.

Christie Gillies, a senior at Cape Elizabeth High School, said it’s scary that teenagers can more easily get a gun than a driver’s license. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

But each individual walkout in Maine, and nationally, is planned by students at each school. Many will last longer than 17 minutes, and most won’t be strictly walkouts but also include elements found more often at a political rally, since school officials in many districts are allowing time out of the school day for the events and aren’t punishing students who attend.

At Cape Elizabeth High, the event will include an appearance by Maine Gun Safety Coalition executive director Nick Wilson. Voter registration cards will be given out at several schools, including Greely High School in Cumberland, where a student will read a speech about gun control by former President Obama. At Mount Desert Island High School in Bar Harbor, students will try to hold hands and create a circle around the school building. At some events, students will sing and read poetry.

“They, the students, are keeping this story (the Parkland shooting) alive, and I think we’re all surprised by how involved they are,” Wilson said. “As a movement and as a generation, we’ve failed these young people by not closing the loopholes in gun laws. Now we need to support them and get out of their way.”

There have been shootings at at least 170 schools since the mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. Unlike other mass shootings, Parkland has already made an impact on gun laws. The impassioned pleas of student survivors and the families of slain victims helped persuade Florida lawmakers last week to pass stricter gun laws in a state that is usually seen as gun-friendly. The legislation, which was signed by Republican Gov. Rick Scott on Friday, raises the age for firearm purchases from 18 to 21, requires a three-day waiting period, bans bump stocks that allow semi-automatic weapons to fire more like automatic ones, and gives police more power to seize weapons from people deemed mentally unfit.

Maine student organizers say they will stay active beyond Wednesday’s walkouts. Several plan to lead groups of students to local March For Our Lives events on March 24, an event promoted by Parkland survivors. Others say they will organize efforts among students to call legislators and members of Congress. The students organizing Wednesday’s walkout at Mount Desert Island High plan, in the next few months, to march through Bangor to the offices of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and Rep. Bruce Poliquin to urge them to vote for stricter gun laws.

Taylor Maxwell, a South Portland High sophomore, feels inspired. “Maybe we have more power than we thought.” Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

One of the MDI High walkout organizers, 17-year-old Mackenzie Miller, said she was driven to act because she was “saddened and angered” by the shooting and by what she sees as inaction by politicians.

“I was never a big fan of guns,” she said, “but after Parkland I just thought enough is enough.”

THREATS CLOSE TO HOME

Since the Parkland shooting on Feb. 14, threats of violence have been made against at least a dozen Maine schools and at least 13 students have been charged by police, putting the possibility of something happening in a Maine school on students’ minds.

The threats ranged from comments overheard in school hallways to an Ellsworth High School student predicting he would become “notorious” for killing as many as 30 people. The day after the Parkland shooting, a South Portland High School student was arrested and charged with terrorizing for allegedly posting a message on social media about “shooting up the school.”

Despite the vulnerability many students feel in the wake of the shootings and threats, for some of them, getting involved in the walkouts has counteracted that. Taylor Maxwell, 16, a sophomore and one of the organizers of the South Portland High walkout, said she finally feels like she and other teenagers have a voice in the gun violence and school safety debate.

“It makes you realize that maybe we have more power than we thought,” she said.

SCHOOL OFFICIALS INVOLVED, CITE STUDENT SAFETY

The walkouts in Maine seem to fall along political lines, with most happening in the more liberal southern half of the state.

In many districts, officials have said the 10 a.m. walkout will be considered a break from the school day. Students who want to participate can, without fear of punishment, while others can stay inside and do something independently. In some schools, teachers will continue to teach.

Several superintendents said that once they found out about the walkouts, they felt it would be better to allow the events and keep an eye on them rather than have students walk outside in large unsupervised groups.

South Portland superintendent Ken Kunin and Portland superintendent Xavier Botana wrote in messages to parents that police would be made aware of the events at their schools.

Botana said in an interview last week that allowing the events to happen does not mean the schools are endorsing a particular view on how to promote school safety or gun control. He said that he and school officials came up with their plans only after they learned that students at Portland’s high schools planned to participate in the walkouts.

“We wanted to make sure we provide the safest conditions for students to express themselves, whatever their views are,” he said.

The fact that school officials are cooperating with the walkouts has led some students to question whether their value as protests are diminished, but most student organizers say that doesn’t matter to them.

“For me, that’s not an issue,” said Anna Raley, 16, a sophomore at Greely High School in Cumberland and an organizer of the walkout there. “We’re not protesting the school. We’re protesting the lack of gun laws right now.”

MOSTLY ABOUT GUNS

The issue, organizers said, is guns and how they relate to school safety. At the Greely walkout, information about gun control in other countries will be shared with students.

“I wanted to know how I could help change things, to make people feel safe,” Raley said.

Meanwhile, conservative politicians are talking about arming teachers or providing more armed school security as an answer to school shootings.

Gun control can be a particularly controversial topic in Maine, a state with a strong history of hunting and gun ownership – one whose Constitution says, “Every citizen has a right to keep and bear arms and this right shall never be questioned.” A Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram poll in 2013 found that Mainers were more likely to own guns than most Americans, with 55 percent of 600 adults polled reporting having a gun on their property. A Gallup poll around the same time found that, nationally, 47 percent of people had guns in their households.

Eliza Brown and Anna Parker, walkout organizers at Yarmouth High School, said they had not thought a lot about gun laws before Parkland. But now they feel that the main thrust of stopping gun violence in schools, and in general, should be about limiting guns. They both say they favor stricter background checks for gun buyers, and a higher minimum age. They both are opposed to the idea of armed guards.

“We want to feel safe in our schools,” said Brown, 17, a senior.

One of the Cape Elizabeth High walkout organizers, senior Tony Inhorn, said gun violence in schools is a personal issue for students, not just a political one, but as someone who will be able to vote this year, he understands that engaging in politics is the way to effect change. That’s why voter registration forms will be given out at the walkout, he said.

“Pretty soon a lot of high school students will be voting age, and vote for politicians who share their beliefs, that’s how you get change,” said Inhorn, 18. “The reason I wanted to get involved in this issue is that adults are failing us.”

Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

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