Inspired by the impassioned activism of Florida students who survived last month's mass shooting, teenagers at one Maryland high school are organizing an effort to provide host families for out-of-town peers attending a late March rally for gun control legislation in the U.S. capital.
The students brainstormed ways to help after a shooting rampage left 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. They were also stirred to act after a Feb. 21 threat led to the evacuation of their own school in Bethesda, just northwest of Washington, D.C.
"We kind of decided we're tired of feeling like we can't do anything," said 16-year-old Mai Canning, one of the handful of students at Bethesda's Walter Johnson High School behind the effort.
Canning and her friends now have a network of roughly 200 host families — primarily homes with students at Walter Johnson and some other local high schools — in neighborhoods along the Washington-area Metro system. Some have said they will provide free meals or provide Metro cards.
They caution their area peers: "If you are a student, do not indicate your ability to host without asking your parents first."
The students' social media post about their hosting effort has been shared thousands of times, including by Parkland, Florida, high school students dealing with the intense emotional fallout of the Feb. 14 shooting rampage. So far, some teens who have sought host families are coming from as far away as California.
"We all live in the D.C. area, we have homes, and it would be really nice to connect with students from all over the country that are passionate about this kind of thing while giving them a place to stay," said main organizer Gabrielle Zwi, a 17-year-old senior at Walter Johnson.
Marcus Messner, an associate professor of journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University, noted in an email that teens today are "digital natives" who grew up with online social media. He said that enables them to organize quickly around an issue, "as the students at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda are demonstrating."
He added, "The question always is whether the digital activism can be turned into tangible real-life results. In this case, organizing a mass protest in the capital via social media is an important first step for them. In addition, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students in Florida have also demonstrated how savvy they are at organizing via social media while at the same time getting their message out to a national audience via traditional news outlets as well."
Organizers of the March 24 gun control rally dubbed "March For Our Lives" sought a permit for the National Mall in Washington, but that location was already reserved. The Washington Post reported that a redacted permit application revealed that a "student project" for "filming for a talent show" got the Mall site where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.
In an email to The Associated Press, National Park Service spokesman Mike Litterst clarified that the "March For Our Lives" organizers have since informed officials that they will hold their rally on Pennsylvania Avenue, between 3rd and 12th streets. The federal agency will "work with the organizers to issue permits for affected properties under our jurisdiction," he said.
The application for the March 24 rally says more than 500,000 attendees are expected.
Oprah Winfrey recently matched a $500,000 donation by George and Amal Clooney to support planned marches of the Florida school shooting survivors and their supporters, including the one expected on March 24 in Washington.
The Bethesda students are looking forward to meeting their Parkland peers and other students passionate about trying to influence the national discussion on gun violence and perhaps lessen the depressing frequency of active shooter drills and lockdowns in their schools.
"It's not fair to us as we're trying to learn," said Cannon.