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Students at Western International High School gather as part of National Walkout Day, a student-led protest happening across the country.

Students at Western International High School gather as part of National Walkout Day, a student-led protest happening across the country.

Kimberly Hayes Taylor

Students walking out of Detroit high schools as part of a national protest recalled personal tragedies: ‘We all deserve to be safe’

Many students participating in a national student walkout Wednesday morning were responding to big-headline school shootings like the one that claimed 17 lives in Florida last month.

But, in Detroit — which the FBI called the nation’s most violent city in 2017 — many students flooding out of city schools to participate were remembering their own, less-publicized gun violence tragedies.

Rebecca Feliciana, 17, who was one of nearly 2,000 students at Detroit’s Western International High School who walked out Wednesday, recalled a loved one who had been killed by her ex-husband. The man terrorized and fatally shot his ex-wife and her baby before shooting himself to death.

Feliciana, who is filming a documentary on local violence, has also seen her parents threatened, and she’s been exposed to other acts of violence in her Southwest Detroit community, she said.

“It’s important for our generation to voice our opinions. I’m here because I’m very against guns and gun violence,” Feliciana said. “There should be a lot more safety precautions taken before people are given a gun.”

In a rare show of student unity, protests were held across the country to remember the 14 teenagers and three educators who were slain a month ago at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In some schools the protests lasted 17 minutes

The students at Western High School left their building at 10 a.m. Wednesday. They walked across the street to Clark Park where they released 17 orange balloons to commemorate the victims, said a prayer in English, Spanish and Arabic, and held a moment of silence.

Across town, at Martin Luther King Jr. High School, some students marched two miles to a demonstration downtown in front of the Spirit of Detroit statue at the city and county municipal building, and rode a district-provided bus back. Others stayed for a memorial in the school’s auditorium where they heard support for stronger gun control in speeches from the school’s student council members.

Martin Luther King Jr. senior Dennis Johnson said he wants his school to be a refuge from the gun violence he sees in his everyday life, but he’s not sure if he can “be safe anywhere anymore.”

“Just because I’m 17 or 18 years old doesn’t mean I don’t see this in my everyday life,” he said. “It’s not a matter of age, it’s a matter of experience.”

At Western, Detroiter Darryl Erwin, 17, recalled a time when his mother’s shoulder was grazed when someone fired bullets at several houses on his block.

Gunfire sometimes makes him feel unsafe in his own neighborhood, he said.

“We need gun control,” Erwin said. “It’s something real serious here because we all deserve to be safe. We didn’t do anything. People were just shooting-crazy on my block. It’s not safe. It’s not safe at all.”

Western Senior Keaonnia Crawley, 18, recalled a similar experience in her westside Detroit neighborhood, when bullets were fired twice at her house. She’s thankful she was sleeping and wasn’t aware of the incident until it was over, and nobody in her family was hurt.

“We support people who lost somebody to gun violence. I give my condolences to them. Nobody should have to go through this, and that’s why I don’t like going anywhere unless I know the area and the people. Otherwise, I don’t feel safe.”

Wednesday’s national walkout was one of three events planned for this spring. The others include a march on Washington, D.C., on March 24, and a second walkout on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine, Colorado, school shooting when 15 people were slain.

Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti offered support to students, providing extra security to schools planning walkouts as well as transportation for students who wanted to participate in another school’s event.

During the protest at Western, community and cultural leader Consequela Lopez, who lives near the school, offered words of hope, inspiration and encouragement as she addressed student protesters. She asked students to look to one another for a reason to organize, stand against violence and take action for change.

“Violence is a social disease,” she said. “In recent years, it has gotten so bad people feel at liberty to go into schools, and take out whatever their issues are.”

“When you walk around a neighborhood and see altars with teddy bears and flowers, it permeates,” she said about public memorials left where people were killed.

“Every movement has started with our youth and our young, so it’s up to us elders and activists to pass the warrior fight along to our youth and our young.”  

At King, Principal Deborah Jenkins, reminded students that their school was named for a leader who stood up against violence.

“You’ve already been charged … purely by the name of the school you go to. Dr. Martin Luther King stood for non-violence, civility, and equality,” Jenkins said.  
King Senior Zion Garrett encouraged students to speak up.

“Have a voice, and use your voice. AR-15s, why do civilians have them? Why do kids have them? Why does anyone without a military background have one?” he said.
Another senior, Tia Smith, said she believed school shootings will continue to happen unless students speak up.

“After we heard about the tragedy at Parkland, we were moved,” she said.  “We need to protest — we need to do something … It’s only a matter of time. It’s not like if it’s going to happen, it’s when it’s going to happen.”
Senior class vice-president, Alana Burke, said, “We don’t want guns and violence in our schools, just like we don’t want it in any other schools.”