West Boca students walk 12 miles to Douglas: ‘We had to do something’

6:28 p.m Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018 Local
Melanie Bell/The Palm Beach Post
West Boca High School students walked to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fl., February 20, 2018. (Melanie Bell / The Palm Beach Post)

For 17 minutes at West Boca Raton High School on Tuesday, the campus fell silent to honor 17 killed in a high school shooting 10 miles away. But within seconds, the halls were consumed by the roaring sound of students leaving in droves and chanting in support of fallen classmates.

FULL COVERAGE: Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting

About 90 percent of West Boca High’s students walked out Tuesday, hundreds of them making the roughly 12 mile, four-hour walk to Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a mass shooting left 17 dead last week.

“Being silent wasn’t enough,” said Eduardo Soto, a freshman at West Boca. “We had to do something.”

Melanie Bell/The Palm Beach Post
West Boca High School students walked to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fl., February 20, 2018. (Melanie Bell / The Palm Beach Post)

With clothes drenched in sweat, the tired mass of students walked from 9:30 a.m. until reaching the northeast corner of Douglas High at 2 p.m. They were met by a crowd of Douglas High students and neighbors who cheered in support. That corner of the fenced-off high school is shrouded in flowers, photos, signs and crosses honoring the victims.

A few kids were treated for dehydration after the walk, said Palm Beach County schools Superintendent Robert Avossa. The West Boca kids who left school were shuttled back to Boca Raton in 11 yellow school buses around 3 p.m.

For some, the West Boca walk was one of solidarity for those lost at Douglas High when 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz walked onto campus and fired aimlessly with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, into a freshmen building. For others, it was the echo of a cause that Douglas High shooting survivors have taken on — an urge for gun reform and heightened security at schools.

“To get into a school should be like getting onto a plane,” said Zack Elliott, a junior at West Boca.

Melanie Bell/The Palm Beach Post
Sarah Lopez, a tenth grade West Boca High School student who walked to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fl., February 20, 2018 cries as she stands in front of a memorial. She said it took her 4 hours to walk there and "there was nothing to compare to the feeling that you can change things". (Melanie Bell / The Palm Beach Post)

‘Spontaneous demonstration’

The students, most not yet old enough to vote, described the walk-out as their only platform. At the school, the principal, administrators and police tried to stop the herd of students as they approached the perimeter gate, the students said.

Then they went through.

West Boca 14-year-old freshman Kendrick Hong called it a “spontaneous demonstration.”

“It’s just amazing that all of us just did it,” he said. “No one should be afraid to go to school.”

Kendrick Hong and Joey Courtney, both 14-year-old freshmen at West Boca High, joined other students at the school when they left school early and headed for Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. (John Pacenti / The Palm Beach Post)

“Our principal told us we can protest, but keep it in the school,” said sophomore Zach Coey. “But who’s going to hear our voices there?”

And the principal, Craig Sommer, ended up walking with the kids.

“I’m really proud of the students that walked more than 10 miles to stand up for what they believe in,” he said.

“The kids exercised their democratic right and they really don’t tolerate a lack of safety and we’re going to do our best to provide that for them.”

During the walk, strangers and supporters stopped their cars to offer the students water and food. Police cars with lights flashing also accompanied kids on the walk, which took them down State Road 7 and east on Holmberg Road.

Inspired by the students of Douglas High — many of whom have turned anger into activism and coined the social media movement “#NeverAgain” to advocate for stricter gun laws – students throughout Palm Beach County participated in activism.

Some at Olympic Heights in Boca Raton and Palm Beach Central in Wellington walked out Tuesday, although the crowds were far smaller than West Boca’s. Boca Raton High and Park Vista High, in suburban Boynton Beach, held schoolwide events, Avossa said.

“This walkout is part of a grieving process,” Avossa said. “I’m proud that they did it. I’m glad nobody got hurt.”

Melanie Bell/The Palm Beach Post
West Boca High School students walked to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fl., February 20, 2018. Tenth grade students Daniela Rivas (left) and Joylani Caraballo (right) comfort fellow classmate Pablo Moreno as they sit next to the memorial for Joaquin Oliver, a Venezuelan student killed. They said they are deeply affected because they too had left dangerous countries to seek safety in the United States. (Melanie Bell / The Palm Beach Post)

Pleas for change

Meanwhile, a mile down the road from Douglas High, hundreds of students piled into buses headed for Tallahassee, where they plan to confront lawmakers with their pleas for change.

Cruz, a troubled teen who had been expelled from Douglas High, bought the AR-15 rifle from a Broward County gun shop a year ago, the sheriff’s office said. Federal law prevents people from buying handguns at 21, but not from buying semi-assault weapons.

“It makes no sense,” Coey said.

‘Just the beginning’

The students were well-versed in what they described as weaknesses in Florida and the nation’s gun laws. They called for expanded background checks and restrictions on access to assault weapons.

But many of the teens had just taken on the cause following the Douglas High shooting.

“We need change or we could be next,” said Jakob Desouza, a sophomore who protested for the first time Tuesday. He says he won’t stop until the Douglas students are heard.

Said Desouza: “This is just the beginning.”