Dalton High School Principal Steve Bartoo spoke through the intercom Wednesday morning, explaining to students that their halls were no place for a protest.
"It's important that you have a voice and be able to seek it," he said. "But it's also equally important that you do it in a way that is safe, that doesn't cause confrontation, is done in a respectful way. And so, that's why we're not going to be participating in some sort of a walkout."
Two weeks earlier, a principal's voice had cut in through the same intercom with more urgency — a situation that gets to the heart of the walkouts organized in schools across the country over the past month. On Feb. 28, an administrator alerted Dalton High School students and teachers to go into lockdown mode, to shutter doors and hide behind desks. A shooter was on campus.
The shooter, it turned out, was social studies teacher Jesse Randal Davidson. According to Dalton police, he locked himself in his classroom and fired a .38 through a window. He had sneaked the gun onto campus in his computer case.
POLL: Do you know a student or teacher who participated in the walkout?
Area students honor Florida school shooting victims, call for end to gun violence [photos, videos]Read more
Davidson did not injure anybody that morning. But in the midst of the lockdown, some students sent messages to their parents. They told them they loved them, and that they might never get another message to them.
But while students across the country organized walkouts to protest gun violence and advocate for laws that would make schools safer, Bartoo did not believe the efforts would be productive. While other North Georgia schools brought in extra police officers or planned to hold walkout activities in a gym, Bartoo worried the school could not keep a mass of students safe outside. He also thought students with differing viewpoints would yell at each other.
"I don't know if that's respecting the events that took place in Parkland," he said, alluding to the Feb. 14 school shooting in Florida in which 17 people died.
However, Bartoo also gave teachers and staff instructions for what to do in the event that students actually did leave class. He told them to usher the students to a courtyard in the middle of campus. But between his private plan with teachers and his public statement that the school would not participate in a walkout, some students said they felt confused Wednesday morning.
One student who planned to walk out said she heard about Bartoo's email to teachers and thought the school was supporting her participation in a protest. But when she tried to leave class at 10 a.m., her teacher told her she would need to take up the issue with Bartoo.
"She was saying it like a threat," said the student, who requested anonymity for fear of punishment by school administrators. "'If you walk out, you will get in trouble!'"
Said another student, who asked for anonymity for the same reason: "As I tried walking out there were teachers everywhere asking what we were doing and [not] to try to and they would send us back to class before we even got close to the office."
In the end, Bartoo estimated that about 70 students walked to the courtyard. Another student estimated the figure at 40. Adding more confusion, the students said, was the fact that Bartoo closed the school's open Wi-Fi network.
"I asked for it not to be working [Wednesday] morning because of social media use," he said. "Kids can use their cellphones on it. We were not promoting a walkout in any way."
Like at other schools, students approached the principal weeks ago about a planned demonstration. Bartoo and another administrator met with the students, and they decided to avoid a walkout. Instead, they would hold a forum on school safety.
In an advertisement for the forum, the council said that Dalton Mayor Dennis Mock and state Rep. Kasey Carpenter plan to attend, along with the superintendent, a police officer, a mental health professional and a representative for the National Rifle Association. The forum is tentatively scheduled for March 26, though Carpenter may be tied up in Atlanta for the end of the legislative session.
Dalton Public Schools were not alone in their opposition to the walkout. On Monday, Whitfield County Schools Superintendent Judy Gilreath said she would not approve a walkout because it could attract dangerous outside agitators. Schools Spokesman Eric Beavers told the Times Free Press on Wednesday that two Southeast High School students walked out.
Elsewhere in North Georgia, students left their classrooms in Catoosa, Dade and Walker counties. At Heritage High School, Principal Ronnie Bradford said about 200 students gathered in a grassy area in the middle of the campus. Two Catoosa County deputies joined a school resource officer to keep the area safe.
Bradford said freshman Christina Newport organized the event. She and six other students spoke. They held a moment of silence and read short biographies of the 17 people who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. They also encouraged students to build relationships with people who seem to be alone, trying to build a greater sense of community.
Bradford and other Catoosa County principals met with Superintendent Denia Reese a couple of weeks ago to discuss potential walkouts. They agreed to support the protests, if students asked to protest.
"We don't encourage protests and walkouts in school," Bradford said. "But with the school violence issue, this is the place to address it. There may be other issues students feel strongly about, but they're not just school related. This one is."
This being a conservative area, Bradford said students avoided discussing gun control, instead favoring a message of community building. Principals at LaFayette High School and Dade County High School told the Times Free Press the same thing.
In Dade County, Principal Jamie Fahrney said English and social studies teachers gave their students a PBS article that consisted of brief essays by high school students. The essays carried various viewpoints on gun control issues. At 10 a.m., about 65 students walked into a common area near the front doors. Another 25 students walked outside to a picnic table, where Fahrney met with them to discuss their thoughts on school safety.
In LaFayette, Principal Tracy Hubbert said administrators told the students to gather inside the gym, to keep them safe. He said a junior led the event, reading a statement over the intercom before it started. Superintendent Damon Raines also showed up to watch.
"This is a civics lessons in action," Hubbert said. "They're going to learn how the legislative process works and what the obstacles are. As educators, we want the students to have a voice."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.