About 200 Cape Elizabeth and South Portland high school students walked out of classes Friday morning and gathered in downtown Portland to protest gun violence and call for an assault weapons ban.

The peaceful protest march was organized by students and parents in the wake of last week’s shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 students and two teachers were killed. Hundreds of similar protests are being held across the nation, including the March for Our Lives on June 11 in Washington, D.C.

Stella Crawford, a junior at Cape Elizabeth High School, leads a chant outside Sen. Susan Collins’ office, where about 200 Cape Elizabeth and South Portland high school students gathered to protest gun violence and call for an assault weapons ban on Friday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Unfazed by steady rain, the Cape and South Portland students marched from the Cross Insurance Arena, down Spring and Congress streets, to deliver a letter to Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, at her office in the Old Port.

Dressed in black, they chanted “Enough is enough!” and carried signs saying “Protect Kids Not Guns” and “Books Not Bullets.” Along the way, traffic stalled, motorists honked their horns and pedestrians cheered.

Student organizer Stella Crawford, a junior at Cape Elizabeth High School, read the letter aloud to drenched but exhilarated protesters outside Collins’ office at 1 Canal Plaza.

“We want to learn and live without fear,” Crawford read. “We demand you advocate for the children of your state rather than your donors and your party.”

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One part of the letter to Collins said “it is unethical that you have taken money from the NRA and prioritize their wants over our lives.”

“Because our First Amendment right to life should be more important than the Second Amendment right to own an assault weapon,” Crawford read to the crowd. “Because our parents don’t want to hear your thoughts and prayers when our lives are lost.”

Crawford and several other students delivered the letter to Collins’ eighth-floor office. The senator wasn’t there, but they met briefly with members of her staff. News reporters weren’t allowed to attend. Afterward, Crawford said she wasn’t encouraged by what she’d heard but she’s not giving up.

“I think we got our point across,” she said. “We want to feel safe in our schools. A kid should not die in his or her school building. It’s not political. It’s not red or blue. It’s human.”

After meeting with the students, the senator’s staff issued a written statement saying that “Collins is part of a bipartisan group of senators led by Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, that has been meeting to find consensus on gun safety legislation.  They are making rapid progress toward a common sense package that could garner support from both Republicans and Democrats.”

Crawford’s mother, Sarah Crawford, believes the stress and anxiety that many students feel because of increased school shootings is compounding mental health problems that some elected officials point to as the cause of mass shootings.

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March organizers said some students from Portland also participated in Friday’s protest.

On Thursday, President Biden called on Congress to deliver “common-sense” reforms to curb gun violence following three mass shootings in the last three weeks, including a racist attack in Buffalo, New York, where a gunman killed 10 Black people at a supermarket. On Wednesday, a shooter opened fire in a medical building in Tulsa, Oklahoma, killing four before taking his own life.

“For God’s sake, how much more carnage are we willing to accept?” Biden asked. “How many more innocent lives must be taken before we say, ‘Enough, enough.’?”

Biden is pushing for expanded background checks, red flag laws, safe storage laws and other measures that go far beyond what Congress is currently considering, including a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines or at least raising the age for purchasing such weapons from 18 to 21.

“It’s insane that a teenager can purchase a military-grade assault weapon,” Eben Harrison, a junior, said Friday morning as students organized outside Cape High. Investigators say the gunman charged in the Texas shooting had purchased two assault rifles and ammunition for his 18th birthday just days before the killing.

Cape students organized the walkout with school officials, who said 117 students were dismissed Friday morning with permission from their parents to participate in the protest march.

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“We always encourage students to think for themselves, have their own voice and be good citizens,” said Cape High Principal John Springer.

Hannah Arey, a junior, organized the protesters from South Portland High School. She said she joined an impromptu student protest after the 2018 shooting in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. She was then a seventh-grader at Mahoney Middle School.

“Nothing has changed since then,” Arey said. “Now it’s happening everywhere all the time.”

Dina and Giada Jellison, mother and child, were among the South Portland protesters.

“I’m here for (them),” Dina Jellison said, struggling to speak through emotion. “There’s got to be a better, safer way.”

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