This story was updated April 18, 2018, at 11:59 p.m. with photos and information.
Student leaders from Chattanooga are headed to the nation's Capitol today to meet with federal lawmakers tomorrow to talk about school safety, gun violence and gun law reform.
Fourteen student members of Chattanooga Students Leading Change, the group behind the local March for Our Lives rally and student walkouts last month, left for Washington, D.C., this morning. They are slated to meet with U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, Rep. Chuck Fleischmann and staffers from U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, all Tennessee Republicans, on Thursday.
"Our goal is to set up relation ships with these legislators and their offices, so we can go back to talk to them about other issues in the future as well," Lauren Tolbert, a junior at the Chattanooga School for Arts and Sciences.
Earlier this month, many of these students went to Nashville to lobby Gov. Bill Haslam to veto a controversial bill that would allow Tennessee school districts to arm teachers and staff — the bill later died in the House Education Committee.
Though Haslam was not available to meet with them, students spoke with members of his staff, as well as staffers for several other representatives. The group also met with Sen. Bo Waston, R-Hixson.
The students have shared their policy points with local elected officials. They are calling for universal background checks, red flag laws to allow law enforcement to confiscate weapons from someone who might be a threat and a ban on bump stocks.
"We need to start finding common ground with our legislators," said Allen Liu, a senior at McCallie School. "I'm looking forward to hearing what they are thinking."
Liu also represented the group at Monday's school safety meetings organized by Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond, sharing his perspective with representatives from several local law enforcement agencies.
Chattanooga Student Leading Change was formed in response to the shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school on Valentine's Day. As Parkland survivors took the national stage, a group grew locally. They have held almost weekly meetings, organized a letter-writing campaign at area high schools, addressed the Hamilton County School Board, planned walkouts and a town hall where candidates discussed gun policy, among a variety of other initiatives.
Meeting with Corker and Fleischmann feels like the next victory for them.
"I think it's definitely an accomplishment that we have enough clout to get our legislators to schedule a meeting with us," Liu said.
Tolbert echoed Liu's thoughts, but said the group will not stop there.
"It feels like a success, but it's also just feels like a first step, but [with] what we have left to do, it's just a small drop in the bucket," she said.
Regardless, the parents, clergy men and community members who have helped facilitate and guide the group since it's formation, said their work and passion are inspiring.
"It's amazing what they've accomplished in six weeks," said Clay Thomas, pastor at Rivermont Presbyterian Church and father of Mason Thomas, a freshman at Red Bank High School and one of the students headed to Washington. "They have earned the respect of the community and our elected leaders."
"The more people who participate in democracy, the better ... and these youth are participating," he added.
In addition to meeting with lawmakers, the students will also get to take in a few of the sights in D.C. About half the group has visited the city before, but many haven't. They asked to go to the Capitol, the Library of Congress, the Lincoln Memorial and the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial, Thomas said.
On Friday, they will also get a tour of NPR.
As the kids and their adult chaperones loaded up the two vans with backpacks and snacks this morning, parents gathered to watch.
"It's amazing," said Michelle Garcia, mother of Chrischahna Smith, an eighth grader at Normal Park Museum Magnet. "I think it's a wonderful opportunity and I commend them for their spirit. "
Garcia has gotten some push back and negative comments since her daughter got involved with the group, she said, but she hasn't let that deter her or Smith's commitment.
"It's very important that I stand behind her," she said. "I've always told her that."
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.