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After Parkland, these students became activists. Will their movement last?

With local high school students leading the way, an estimated 13,000 supporters of the March For Our Lives movement rallied at Kiley Garden in Tampa on March 24, followed by a march around downtown. Days later, planning began for a local town hall meeting, part of the student-led strategy to keep the Feb. 14 Parkland school shooting in the public eye. [LUIS SANTANA   |   Times]
With local high school students leading the way, an estimated 13,000 supporters of the March For Our Lives movement rallied at Kiley Garden in Tampa on March 24, followed by a march around downtown. Days later, planning began for a local town hall meeting, part of the student-led strategy to keep the Feb. 14 Parkland school shooting in the public eye. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published Apr. 18, 2018

TAMPA — Sam Sharf's parents thought he had the best position on the Plant High School football team. As back-up quarterback, he could impress the girls but rarely played enough to get hurt.

Now a junior, Sharf is off the team so he can focus his energies on advocating for what he calls common sense gun laws.

He realized, after speaking at a Senate committee in Tallahassee and later at Tampa's March For Our Lives rally, that "this is what I'm good at."

Watching him, said his father, Jon Sharf, "I've learned the difference between a 16-year-old and a 17-year-old. To me that's been eye-opening."

RELATED: Gov. Rick Scott signs gun, school security legislation over NRA opposition

Throughout the Tampa Bay area and around the nation, students have taken a cue from survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in Parkland and organized public events, one after another, to put a spotlight on gun violence in the United States.

They are, to a large extent, high-achieving students, some from affluent communities like Parkland, the kind of kids whose classes and extracurricular activities honed their skills in research, writing and public speaking.

Until the Feb. 14 massacre, those efforts were reflected largely in obscure blogs and weekend conferences. Now a generation of budding activists has set their sights on flipping Congressional seats and enacting legislation.

But the trick will be sustaining it as they balance their movement against the demands of high school and other forces.

Can they keep it going? Or will youth, opposition and their own busy lives hold them back?

• • •

Emma Gonzalez's "We call BS" speech on Feb. 17 was the where-were-you-when moment for many in the student gun reform movement.

The 5-foot, 2-inch Parkland student captured the imagination of Brooke Shapiro and Macie Lavender, two Plant seniors who were already friends and collaborators on Shapiro's female empowerment blog, "The F Word."

Gonzalez' many traits — young, female, bisexual and Cuban American — made her the perfect front person, illustrating that gun violence was "intersectional," as Lavender likes to say, affecting a multitude of communities.

But their admiration extended to the Parkland group as a whole.

"They decided to take their fear and their grief and turn that into action and turn it into something positive," Shapiro said.

"Adults have told us in the past, leave it to the adults. We were not being heard before. Now we feel that there is a platform for us to speak out and be involved in politics and advocate for our own lives."

Students sprang into action almost immediately. The nation was eying the White House and the Florida Legislature for a response. Gonzalez and fellow Stoneman Douglas student David Hogg wanted the National Rifle Association and all lawmakers put on notice.

From Tampa's Blake High School, students organized by 14-year-old Safiyyah Ameer left the school on Friday, Feb. 23 and marched into downtown Tampa, some with posters that said, "F the NRA." They chanted the vulgar term too.

They were met at Curtis Hixon Park by a larger group who read prepared speeches and held poster-size photos of the 17 slain Stoneman Douglas students and teachers.

A smaller group, including Ameer and Alex Barrow, 16, of Hillsborough High School won over the Cafe Con Tampa power breakfast the following week.

School officials wrestled with questions of safety and dissent. Some were more permissive than others about posters in the hallway as momentum built to the March 24 rallies.

RELATED: She's taught at the Parkland high school for 14 years. Can she go back?

By then, Shapiro and Lavender were at the forefront. Flanked by friends from a half-dozen public and private schools, they had a strategy meeting with U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor.

The turnout — an estimated 15,000 participants in three counties — was triple what anyone had predicted.

And there had been a shift, by then, in tone and focus.

Vulgar language was strongly discouraged. So was the strident anti-gun rhetoric. Although most still called for a ban on assault rifles, they declared they were not against the Second Amendment of the Constitution and practiced saying, "we are not here to take away your guns."

Attempts were made to engage gun owners in the conversation and include issues such as mental health. "We must recognize that while all countries have insane people, only in America do they have access to firearms," Sharf told the crowd.

His father, away on business that day, came home to find about a dozen teenagers from various political backgrounds, watching the footage on the evening news and discussing the complex issues surrounding guns.

He was struck by the way they were able to agree on reasonable solutions. "They weren't affected by the extremist talking points that you get from the talking heads on TV," he said. "It was really interesting, the innocence of the discussion and the purity of it."

• • •

Isabella Cruz-O'Grady is a senior and poet at Steinbrenner High School in Lutz. After a childhood in Detroit, she is no stranger to gunfire or to gun threats. But that's every high school student, she said. Growing up in the 2000s comes with a steady diet of social media, where threats often reside.

She delivered a poem at the rally called "Blizzard," a title that refers to the "Snowflake" slur assigned to liberals of her generation.

It ended, like so many of the day's speeches, with a warning that politicians who do not listen to the masses of "pissed off snowflakes" will be out of a job.

Days later, Cruz-O'Grady was optimistic about the student movement. Public attention was lasting far longer than it had after the Pulse nightclub shootings, or so many other atrocities.

Still, she confessed to having doubts.

"I have had that fear that I kind of wake up in the morning and check my Facebook feed and check Twitter and I'm going to stop seeing these posts, or Emma Gonzalez or any of the other students, that they will fade in the background," she said.

"But they haven't."

• • •

April 3.

It is 10 days after March For Our Lives, but only four days before the next event announced by Hogg, the movement's de-facto leader: Political town hall meetings everywhere.

Leading this planning session at Tampa's Metropolitan Community Church is Parisa Akbarpour, a student journalist at Sickles High who has taken the torch from Shapiro and Lavender.

She speaks with no script, calm and serene even though the panel of speakers isn't finalized, publicity has not begun and only 18 people have assembled in the church pews.

She calls for a blitz on media and social media. "If you knew people who were at the march, tell them about this meeting," she says. "And don't just invite your Democratic, anti-gun friends."

She tells them to reassure those whose parents are gun rights advocates that "they're not going to shun you. They're not going to say, 'You're out of the family.'"

READ THE GRADEBOOK: The talk of Florida education

She answers questions about the movement. She wishes it had just a bit more structure. She wonders if she can get help from a friend who knows one of the Parkland students "so we know about things sooner, rather than finding out on Twitter."

She wants the movement to remain student-led. But things like shirts, flyers and banners cost money. And "we don't have money. We're in high school."

She is light on details about how the students can parlay their activism into change at the polls.

"Our job is to keep what's happened in the public eye," she says. And, in a moment of dark humor, she assures the group that Americans are not likely to forget about gun violence because "it's not like shootings are going to end after this."

When 3 p.m. rolls around on April 7, a steady stream of visitors fill the church for the town hall meeting. Panelists include Castor, Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren and Sen. Darryl Rouson. But all three are Democrats. The students invited Republicans. They did not show.

"It's their loss," Cruz-O'Grady says afterwards. "They might not be re-elected because they didn't go to that town hall."

• • •

But Cruz-O'Grady was not at the town hall meeting either. Nor was Barrow or Ameer.

All three continue to support the movement, but they all had other commitments that day. For Cruz O'Grady, it was her volunteer shift at the Pasco Humane Society.

Ameer, the trailblazer in Tampa, said she has had to step back a bit to focus on her school work. She is a freshman, still adjusting to high school. As a theater major, she helps with school productions and has class projects every other week.

Barrow is working his way through the rigorous International Baccalaureate program at Hillsborough.

"I'm not going to lie, it's been quite difficult," he said. "I'm juggling balls and more just keep being thrown at me, and I'm expected not to drop them all. I'm handling them all. But the end goal is to make the nation safer and our schools safer, so I'm doing the best I can."

The best includes no formal chain of command, and a communication system that is fractured at best.

Out of respect and because maximum impact comes from coordinated events, the students have allowed the core Parkland group, primarily Hogg, to signal their actions.

"If he wants something to happen on April 7, we are going to do our best to make it happen on April 7 and not change that date around," Cruz-O'Grady said. "We have to show this as a tidal wave going across the country."

Locally, however, the students will sometimes butt heads. Older students do not always take the younger ones seriously. Participants come and go, with some questioning their motives.

"There's always issues like that whenever you're taking action," Ameer said.

There are differences on issues such as whether to consult with school administration before organizing a walkout.

Conversations happen on the GroupMe app, another challenge, given that the activists are in school every day. Ten or more might be in a conversation that one will have to leave because it is time to take a test, or participate in a class activity.

"I definitely have classes where the teacher says, 'If I see your phone, I'm taking it,' or everybody has to put their phone in a little holder at the front of the class," Cruz-O'Grady said. "So it will be anywhere from five minutes that I can't look at my phone to 50 minutes, depending on the teacher."

• • •

The next step for the movement is a walkout this Friday at some schools to commemorate the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado.

Then summer looms, and futures that, for some, will be hundreds of miles away.

Shapiro will be a student at Yale University in the fall.

Akbarpour will be at George Washington University. Cruz-O'Grady will most likely attend the State University of New York.

"There are not really people who are set as leaders," Sam Sharf said. "I will do my best to talk to Brooke and Macie and see what they would like me to do next year."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol

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