How To Succeed In Organizing A High School Walkout While Really Trying

Bryan Conlon, February 21, 2018, The South Lawn

So you’re going to high school and have decided that you can’t abide the notion of your classmates getting gunned down by yet another perpetrator of domestic violence. You want to walk out of your classes in protest, be it on 3/14 or 4/20, but you haven’t really done anything like this before. Worse, you live somewhere that has Confederate battle flags flying near the Interstate and there’s not many adults you can trust to help you organize a walkout at your school. Don’t worry, I am here to help guide you through the process of taking your first direct action.

FIRST PHASE: Preparing The Ground


It is astonishingly rare for any kind of direct action to be truly spontaneous. Most of the major marches or pickets you see on the news were weeks or months in the planning and organizing, and this is no exception. Best case scenario at the time of writing is that you have three weeks to plan if you are walking out on March 14. That’s short notice, but very far from impossible. The longer time horizon of April 20 is going to allow you to potentially do more publicly facing actions, like teach-ins, or arrange for speakers. Either way, the steps you need to follow are the same, how much time you have to do them is the only difference.

First, your strongest shield is numbers. The bigger the walkout, the harder it will be for administrators and teachers to retaliate against you for taking action. If 95% of the school marches out the doors and rallies against the violence that infests our society, it will be impossible for Deputy Assistant Vice Principal McMAGAhat to suspend every single one of you. If it’s just six of y’all, well…you might be able to fight whatever the administration does to you in the courts. Likewise, hostility from your peers is allayed if you’re in the majority. If some wannabe Trump White House flunky that always wears a suit to school is in the far minority and doesn’t want to walk out, they aren’t going to be able to get away with harassing you the next day. They can’t bully all of you if you stick together.

Second, what are you walking out for? Be prepared to have a clear set of demands. There’s a lot of discussion about what needs to be done in the wake of massacres like the one at Sandy Hook or Stoneman Douglas. Some of the ideas are essentially sound as harm reduction, such as waiting periods to purchase certain firearms or tighter licensing requirements, but others will only bring more pain and misery on your peers. More cops with guns in schools will only serve to exacerbate a system of discipline that disproportionately punishes students of color. I submit this by my DSA comrade Emma Caterine as good place to start when it comes to the big picture reforms needed to start curbing gun violence.

A model set of demands might look like this:

Semi-automatic firearms can only be purchased by those aged 21 or over.

A limit on a single individual or household keeping more than 300 rounds of ammunition per caliber without additional licensing.

Nationalize all gun sales. Only through government-run stores can new firearms be legally sold.

Impose a ban on advertising firearms to children. This includes product placement in video games.

End US military propaganda in our schools. A fair few mass shootings have been carried out by ex-military or military-associated men, the most recent one at Stoneman Douglas included. Investing in violence abroad inevitably causes the violence to return home.

Create a new legal framework to address violence against women. The bloody red thread that ties all these massacres together is the perpetrator had been an abuser to their intimate partner. Only by coming to terms with that can ‘Never Again’ be said and meant.

The list of demands should be finalized once you have a group decision-making process developed, but having a rough idea of what you want from the start is necessary. I’d also suggest you familiarize yourself with the basic function of firearms. Every two-bit gun-humping shithead gets off on nitpicking your arguments by doing things like pointing out you said ‘clip’ instead of ‘magazine’. A bit of knowledge goes a long way here.

Be able to answer all of the following questions before you start working on the next phase:

  • Are you trying to organize a district or county wide walkout or just a walkout of your school?
  • How many students attend your school? How many are in school in your district?
  • What’s the maximum number of students at our school that you can get to walk out with us?
  • What’s the minimum number necessary to prevent retaliation by administration or right-wing students?
  • How many are in your group organizing this walkout right now?
  • What are the demands you are making by walking out? Are you making demands of elected officials in Washington, on a state level, and/or a local level? How do you plan on delivering those demands?

SECOND PHASE: Planning Things Out

Now that you have an idea of how many people you need to get to walk out to make this a success, you need to start by building your committee.

The first step is map your social space. Create a list of all social groups in the school. Who is in them? Who are the leaders, those that set the agenda of the group? Who do you know in each social group? Where do they usually hang out at lunch? How receptive do you think they’ll be to joining the walkout? If you’re organizing on a multi-school basis, you need to get everyone involved to list who they know at other schools. Once you’ve done that, you then need to get them to both sign on to organizing a walkout there and repeat this process of social mapping. You will also need to build a committee that has representatives from every school to adopt a set of demands and organize preliminary actions on a regional basis.

Once you’ve mapped your social space, you need to convince people in those social groups to participate in this effort. This is why it’s called ‘building the committee’, because you are creating a collective leadership behind this walkout. You should approach the people you know in each social group and ask them to participate. Having this kind of conversation is an organizing conversation, and on page 2 in this link there is a basic structure to having one of those. Once you get someone to join in, you need to get them to go through the social maps and see if they can identify anyone they can bring into the effort.

You will want seniors to take the lead on this for two reasons. One, they’re much harder for the administration to retaliate against since they will be leaving your school in a few months. Two, they are usually granted more autonomy and independence by the administration and teachers. But if someone knows the risks as an underclassmen,  you shouldn’t turn them away.

It should go without saying that the core group of organizers behind this walkout should conduct themselves as model students whenever possible. Don’t bring anything even remotely close to contraband on campus while you are organizing. Don’t get into fights with teachers or other students. Don’t do anything that might get you punished before the walkout itself. This denies your administrators any excuse to make an example of you and intimidate your peers into silence.

You should also be careful about who you bring into the committee. Someone likely to rat you out to the principal should be kept at arm’s length, as should anyone who has had right wing politics up until this point. They can still be involved in the walkout, but they should not be trusted with anything sensitive. Likewise, don’t bring any of the planning materials on campus if you can help it. The administration can search your bag, and you don’t want them to have a full understanding of your organizing campaign.

Be able to answer all of the following questions before you start working on the next phase:

  • What are the social groups in your school, and how do they interact?
  • Who leads each social group? Who do you know in each social group?
  • Which students are most likely to snitch you out to the principal? Which students will look to sabotage this effort?
  • Which groups have friction with each other? How can you serve to buffer that friction?
  • Does your committee sufficiently represent the entire school? Is it skewed heavily towards people of one race or another?

THIRD PHASE: Going Public

So you’ve done your research and got your committee humming like a top. You should be proud of the work you’ve done so far, as there’s people who have been doing political work for decades that can’t do the things you’ve just done. Now comes the tricky part: it’s time to announce your action to the world. While it’s possible to organize this walkout with no preliminary action, given the nature of rumors in high school your peaceful walkout might mutate into a plan to violently lynch a gun-loving teacher or other such nonsense as word spreads. Therefore, making your walkout known to the school in advance allows you to break up distorting rumors and draw in students who might only be marginally attached to social groups.

How you decide to do this is ultimately up to what your committee decides to do. Maybe someone who reads the school announcements in the morning goes off script. Maybe right after school you rally outside and distribute leaflets to other students listing your demands and the planned action. Maybe a sympathetic teacher lets you hold a teach-in about gun violence after school. Maybe you share something on social media and let it spread that way. Or maybe you do all of these things at once. Regardless, you should do your preliminary actions a week out from the day of your walk out at the very latest. Your committee should also finalize your list of demands before your preliminary actions.

No matter what your committee decides to do, no more than half of the existing committee should be involved in organizing the preliminary action. This is because if your school’s administrators decide to crack down on your campaign by suspending those who take part in the preliminary action, this still leaves people involved in the committee around to organize the walkout day of. Any retaliation or attempt at intimidation also requires you to make an additional demand during your walkout: revoke any punishment meted out on walkout organizers.

Organizing on a district or county level requires you to do some kind of off-site meeting or teach-in to announce your planned action to the press as well as an onsite action at each school organizing a walkout. An action at the last school board meeting before the day of the walkout would work, especially if you contact the press ahead of time. It would also make retaliation against organizers harder, since you are doing something not on school property or school time.

Be able to answer all of the following questions before you start working on the next phase:

  • What is your plan behind going public, and when are you planning on doing so?
  • Who is going to be involved in organizing and carrying out the preliminary actions?
  • What materials do you need to create for the preliminary actions?
  • What is the likely response of the administration towards your preliminary actions? How do you plan on protecting those who get involved?


This is it. By now, the whole school knows you’re going to be marching out of class in protest on this day. All that’s left is developing a plan for the walkout itself and executing on it.

First, you need to determine if you are going to do something focused entirely at your school or if you will start a march towards something politically symbolic. If your school is rural or suburban, it might be for the best to rally outside your school, but if you’re close to a Senator’s office you might want to consider marching to it and rallying there. If that Senator has an A rating from the NRA, you definitely might want to rally there instead. You will need people volunteering to be marshals if you’re marching, and you should plan out a route well in advance. You’ll also need members of the committee to be prepared to speak on the demands you’re making. Having chant sheets and leaflets at hand is also useful, especially if you want to carry out follow-up actions. It also might be worth having signs or sign making materials at hand.

You will need to have a press release prepared and sent out to the media in advance of the walkout, and a plan for getting your message out via social media is mandatory. This is doubly important if you’re organizing walkouts at multiple high schools under the same banner. You should consider reaching out to potentially sympathetic groups, like DSA, Our Revolution, Indivisible, or Moms Demand Action, and inviting them to participate in solidarity and support, especially if you are going to march on a Senator’s office.

After this, the only thing left is for you to enjoy the protest.

Be able to answer all of the following questions before you walk out:

  • When are you walking out and where are you rallying?
  • What are you going to do after you walk out? Are you going to organize a march to someplace significant, or are you going to rally outside the school?
  • If you are marching, what is the route you’re taking? Who is willing to guide the march? How are you going to get people home from the march destination?
  • Who is going to speak and what are they going to say?
  • What materials do you need for your rally or march? Do you need signs?
  • How are you getting your message out to the outside world? Have you contacted the media? What’s your plan for distributing photos or videos on social media?
  • Have you invited any other groups to participate in your walkout in solidarity?

FINAL PHASE: Assessing The Results

So I lied. There’s one more thing left for you to do. You should pull together the entire committee one last time and debrief, preferably in a relaxed, social setting. Go back through the course of events and assess how things turned out. What worked? What didn’t work? What would you do differently the next time? What did you learn while organizing this walkout, both about yourself and about politics? Do you think something lasting can be stood up from this action? If so, how do you go about doing that? Has there been any fallout from the action? Has the administration retaliated against organizers or protesters? What are you prepared to do about it?

(Any committee members who are juniors or sophomores might want to consider forming a YDSA chapter at their high school. I’m just saying.)

Organizing is about escalation, and all of the organizing skills you develop here can be put to use in other contexts. What it takes to organize a walkout to address gun violence can also be used to organize a walkout around, say, inequitable funding for schools, or you can use it to engage with politics more broadly as you go to college or enter the working world.

I was in high school when Columbine happened. I remember the shock and fear that permeated my school in the aftermath. I also remember how every art kid got mistreated twice over, by bullies and by the administrators, after the Trenchcoat Mafia entered the popular consciousness as the cause of that massacre. That so many high school students nationwide are now choosing to take action against the root of the violence that marred Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School instead of easy scapegoats heartens me and gives me hope.

Best of luck to y’all, and give ‘em hell.

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