In small towns and large cities, by the dozens and by the thousands, carrying signs and chanting slogans, students across the United States walked out of their classrooms on Wednesday morning in an unprecedented nationwide action against gun violence.

The walkout was the first test of a nascent youth movement pushing for stricter gun laws in the wake of last month’s shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla. The student survivors of the massacre called on young people to join the walkouts as well as marches in Washington and cities across the country on March 24.

Students at more than 3,000 schools across the country registered to participate in Wednesday’s event. Tens of thousands of young people left their schools at 10 a.m. local time and spent 17 minutes outside, a tribute to the 17 people killed in Parkland.

In Brooklyn, N.Y., thousands of students left a single high school, thronging nearby streets. In Baltimore, Md., hundreds of students at one high school lay down on the ground and held a moment of silence. In a small town outside Philadelphia, students arranged their backpacks in a giant heart on their school’s football field. At a high school in Connecticut, students placed 17 classroom desks outside the building, one for each of the Florida victims.

The walkouts came days after the Trump administration unveiled its response to the Florida shooting: It proposed arming certain teachers and forming a commission on school safety. The White House backed away from measures opposed by the National Rifle Association, such as raising the federal minimum age to buy a firearm. Last week Florida passed a law doing just that and the NRA promptly sued the state.

Wednesday’s walkouts were the brainchild of the youth arm of the Women’s March, the group behind mass protests in 2017 and 2018 against the Trump presidency and in favour of women’s rights. While many of the students who participated were high schoolers, walkouts also unfolded at universities, middle schools and elementary schools.

For many of the students, the walkouts represented their first taste of political activism. But for some of them, however, it was not their first encounter with gun violence. Alex Trujillo is the student-body president at a high school in Reno, Nev. Five years ago, when he was in middle school, a classmate shot and killed his math teacher in front of him and injured two other students. He and his twin brother ran across the street and hid behind a trashcan as they waited for the police to arrive.

“I want people to know how scary that situation is and how we don’t want it repeated,” said Mr. Trujillo, 18. “My voice is just one voice, it’s not the strongest or the most powerful, but it can make an impact.”

At 10 a.m. local time, Mr. Trujillo and hundreds of other students at his high school left their classes and walked several blocks to a nearby post office, where they mailed letters to lawmakers and listened to a classmate give a speech. “It feels nice to see how many people were passionate about it and actually want to see change,” he said. “They didn’t just do it to ditch class; they did it for a reason.”

For a generation of students raised with regular lock-down drills, the activism of the Parkland survivors has had an electrifying effect. In the month since the shooting, students across the country have formed networks that did not previously exist.

Sofia Rose, 17, a senior at John Dickinson High School in Wilmington, Del., had never organized anything like the walkout before. On Tuesday night, she joined a conference call with 20 other student organizers involved in walkouts in her state. On Wednesday morning, during her school’s walkout, she took the megaphone and told her peers how to contact their elected representatives and how to register to vote via text message. On Wednesday afternoon, she and other student organizers were heading to a meeting with the state’s governor to discuss gun-control legislation.

This is “absolutely, 100 per cent” a movement, Ms. Rose said. “If we start making change on a state level, Washington will get the idea that we really care about this.”

One important but sometimes overlooked impact of demonstrations is the way they change the people who participate in them, experts say. In particular, it “makes young people more likely to think of themselves as active citizens,” said Jane Mansbridge, a political scientist at Harvard University. “So when something needs doing, they’ll be more likely to take it as their responsibility … in their own minds, they’ve changed their identities.”

In Pittsfield, Mass., hundreds of students began filing out of the front doors of Pittsfield High School at around 10 a.m. despite falling snow and freezing temperatures. Makailey Cookis, Olivia Nda and Kamea Quetti, three of the organizers, wore orange shirts, the chosen colour of gun-control supporters. Many of the assembled students held signs, including placards saying “We have had enough,” “Honour gun victims with action” and “We call BS,” the phrase made famous by Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the Parkland shooting.

Ms. Cookis and her friends had already organized an earlier walkout last month on their own initiative. Now, they are busy arranging a bus to take them and dozens of other students to Washington for the march later this month. What the Parkland students have done is “really an inspiration,” said Ms. Quetti, 18. “Every ounce of support we can give them helps.”

The Globe and Mail, March 14, 2018