Collier teens protest gun violence at rally as student activism spreads after Parkland
Hundreds of protestors and gun reform advocates stand on the corner of Airport-Pulling Road and U.S. 41 chanting to passersby next to the Collier County Courthouse Friday, Feb. 23, 2018, in Naples. Luke Franke/Naples Daily News
Teens from across the United States, including in Collier County, are harnessing their fear and anger and turning it into action.
A series of student-led anti-gun violence rallies have sprung up in schools and cities throughout the country in response to the Parkland shooting, where a 19-year-old, armed with a legally purchased semi-automatic rifle, shot and killed 17 students and staff at his former high school.
In Naples, about 300 people, including dozens of students, took to the county courthouse Friday evening with poster boards and microphones to demand stricter gun laws, encourage people to vote, and raise awareness about politicians who get campaign money from the National Rifle Association.
It was the second anti-gun demonstration students have organized this week. On Wednesday students from Naples High, Immokalee High and Barron Collier High staged on-campus walkouts to protest gun violence.
Students expressed fear over a slew of threats that have been made to Collier County Public Schools.
Students at Naples High School walked out of classrooms on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018 as part of an anti-gun protest Wochit
The Collier County Sheriff’s Office has investigated at least 12 reports of threats to schools since Feb. 15. Threats were made to Barron Collier High, Palmetto Ridge High, Golden Gate High, Immokalee Middle, Corkscrew Middle, North Naples Middle and Pine Ridge Middle schools, reports show.
Two students were arrested this week after the Sheriff's Office said they brought knives to school. One of the students also had disturbing drawings and messages in his backpack, investigators said.
On Wednesday a Barron Collier student was arrested in connection with an email threatening a teacher, and on Friday a Lely High School student was arrested for making a “disturbing statement” to other students, reports said.
Three more students were taken into protective custody this week after others reported they made alarming comments.
“It’s incomprehensible that people could stay silent at a time like this,” said Naples High sophomore Emma Sullivan, 16, who organized Friday’s courthouse rally.
Emma reached out to anti-gun violence nonprofits Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action when she heard about the Parkland shooting. The groups helped her organize the event, which ran from 5 to 7 p.m. and included a series of speakers followed by a march to the corner of U.S. 41 East and Airport-Pulling Road South.
As hundreds filled the corner, more than a dozen elementary and middle school students lined up atop the Collier County Government Center sign holding placards that read "Arms Are For Hugging" and "Protect Children Not Guns." They chanted anti-NRA slogans as cars honked in solidarity.
Emma said not taking action would have been too much of a risk.
“I grew up with this violence, and for a long time I wasn’t old enough to speak up,” she said. “But there’s no time for sitting down anymore.”
Emma and others at the event said they were encouraged by Gov. Rick Scott’s pledge to tighten gun laws. Scott, a longtime friend of the NRA, announced just hours before Friday's rally a plan to raise the minimum age to purchase firearms from 18 to 21. The proposal also includes a ban on the purchase and sale of bump stocks — the device used to kill 58 people in the October shooting in Las Vegas.
Widespread calls for tighter gun laws typically follow mass shootings, but those demands have largely fallen on deaf ears.
Protesters, some of whom held signs that read: “You say you are pro life,” and “We scream before we’re shot,” did not have favorable words for Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida.
U.S. Olympic soccer gold medalist and FIFA Women’s World Cup champion Abby Wambach attended the event and made a brief speech.
Wambach told the Naples Daily News she felt a need to use her platform “to make sure not one more life is lost.”
“We need gun reform and we needed it yesterday,” she said.
Gulfview Middle School history teacher Laura Burke also spoke, saying her curriculum in 2018 has changed: Instead of teaching students just about noble historical figures, she teaches them how to lock down, how to escape, where to hide and when to stay quiet.
“My heart breaks for this generation,” she said.
The local demonstrations are just the beginning of what appears will be a bigger, longer-term movement; hundreds of schools are listed as participants in a national school walkout scheduled for March 14.
A march in Washington, D.C., planned for March 24 is expected to draw half a million people, according to organizers. The event, called March for Our Lives, has drawn 20,000 RSVPs on Facebook, and sister marches are planned in more than 50 other cities, including Fort Myers.
More than $2 million has been raised on the event’s GoFundMe page.
While the walkout was initiated by EMPOWER, the Women’s March youth branch, the march is being led by students, according to the event’s website.
A second national school walkout is slated for April 20 — the 19th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting in Colorado, which left 15 dead, including the gunmen.
“It’s inspiring and it makes you feel hopeful,” said Susan Cone, a member of the Naples chapter of Moms Demand Action, which helped Emma organize Friday’s Collier event. “This generation is intelligent and articulate and it’s very exciting. They feel it’s time to turn the tide.”