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‘We can’t stay silent’: TJ students protest gun violence after Texas school shooting

(Updated at 5:40 p.m.) Leon Jia should’ve been working on his neuroscience homework Wednesday night (May 25).

Instead, just 10 days before his graduation, the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) senior was busy reaching out to classmates and various student leaders, and in less than 48 hours, they had potentially half the student body ready to walk out in protest of gun violence.

More than 100 students filed out of the magnet school on Braddock Road at 9 a.m. today (Friday), spurred by the same frustration, grief, and desire for action in the wake of the recent Uvalde, Texas, school shooting that has inspired walkouts across Northern Virginia, including at McLean High School.

“I think this is a voice of anger and of mourning for the lives that were lost and for the events that led to this,” Jia said.

The 18-year-old gunman who stormed Robb Elementary School in Uvalde on Tuesday (May 24) killed 19 kids and two teachers, making it the deadliest school shooting in the U.S. since 26 people died at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in December 2012.

As TJ’s student body president, Jia says multiple people approached him on Wednesday, asking if there were plans for a walkout in response to the shooting. He soon learned that a couple of groups were planning protests and started working with them to coordinate their actions, including communicating their plans to the school administration.

While this was Jia’s first time helping organize a school walkout, many of the students involved had prior experience. More than 800 TJ students participated in the widespread protests after the Parkland school shooting in 2018, and this past March, students walked out to call for action on climate change.

Talking to FFXnow yesterday (Thursday), Jia said he feels walkouts have become almost “mundane somehow,” so he wanted the upcoming protest to be one that “has impact.”

“The issue of school shootings has gone on for so long and there have been so many,” Jia said. “It’s like clockwork. They just rhythmically puncture the fabric of America, but at the same time, there’s a certain responsibility that we can’t stay silent and do nothing.”

After gathering in front of the school’s domed entrance, the students marched along Minor Lane, which encircles the main building. At the school stadium, students planned to have speeches, chants, and a 21-minute moment of silence.

Media were not allowed on school grounds, Fairfax County Public Schools told FFXnow.

One of the students who spoke during the protest was Vihaan Mathur, a junior at TJ. Noting that more kids have been killed in school shootings this year than police officers have in the line of duty, he lamented the lack of policy changes in response to mass shootings, saying that “the government and public express their sorrow, yet nothing happens.”

He also reflected on the fact that the students killed in Newport would’ve been their age by now.

“These children were our age and should be in high school right now,” Mathur said in his speech, which he shared with FFXnow. “They should be buying prom dresses, going to visit colleges, and standing HERE next to us but their parents and families have had to live 10 painful years without them.”

Mathur says he volunteered to speak at the protest because he wanted his voice to be heard.

“I honestly just wanted to do something,” he told FFXnow. “We often feel so helpless in such large, national issues that seem to have no solution.”

The walkout came a day after the Fairfax County School Board directed Superintendent Scott Brabrand “to conduct a holistic review of safety and security protocols and procedures in all FCPS buildings,” FCPS said in a news release. The board also urged FCPS to prioritize a plan to install security vestibules in all school facilities.

Jia says school shootings like the one in Texas make him “more angry and sad than afraid.” He typically doesn’t feel concerned for his safety while at school, noting that “that’s how it should be,” but he’s aware of how easily that feeling of security can be shattered.

“I don’t know if it hit close to home, but it’s quite frankly outrageous, and it angers me and other people, and of course, it’s indescribably tragic,” he said.

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