After watching the confusion and fear that followed President Donald Trump’s travel restrictions on refugees and travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, Rida Ali felt the need to do something.
The 16-year-old Ashburn resident is a first generation American. Her mother is from Yemen and her father from Pakistan. She took to Twitter and suggested to a few of her friends that they plan a “walk out,” to leave class for 10-15 minutes to make a statement about how empty the school—the nation, really—would be without immigrants or descendants of immigrants.
What she didn’t expect was that hundreds of students would join her on campuses throughout Loudoun County. “It spread so far,” she said. “I had no idea that any other school was going to do this.”
Walk outs were reported this afternoon at least eight Loudoun County high schools. Four of the largest demonstrations took place at Briar Woods, Rock Ridge, Potomac Falls and Broad Run, where Ali is a junior. The school system reported that, in total, 619 students participated in the walk out.
Despite Friday’s near freezing temps, Ali, in her hijab, led about 90 of her classmates out of the school just before 2:30 p.m. She had instructed them not to chant, but to silently sit on the sidewalk. About a dozen held signs with pro-immigration messages, like “My country is built by immigrants,” and several waved American flags.
Ali stood in front of her peers and several flashing news cameras and said, “I organized this walk out not because I wanted to protest anything. It’s not because I wanted to make a political statement. Not because I wanted to disrupt class time. I organized this because I think it’s time to come together and outline the importance of diversity and immigration in our country.”
She told the students that most U.S. citizens are, really, immigrants or descendants of immigrants. “At one point, one of our family members came to this country. It’s not an opinion, it’s not political. It’s a fact,” she said.
Her comments received loud applause from the students and cheers from about six adults who stood in the distance. They said they attended to show their support for the walk out. Kartar and Shakta Khalsa, who drove from Sterling to the Ashburn school, said they’ve been encouraged by people’s willingness to voice their opposition to the new president.
“I support what they’re doing. It’s happening on every level everywhere,” Kartar Khalsa said. “I think this is what democracy looks like.”
One Broad Run student held a small counter demonstration. Wearing an iconic red Trump campaign hat, Vinnie Sack, 18, held a sign that read “Respect our president – Go back to school.” He said he was friends with many of the students who took part in the walk out. “They have an opinion and get to stand up for what they believe in, and so do I,” he added. He explained that he’s had different life experiences than many of his classmates and those have shaped his world view, his family, and his political views.
After Ali’s brief comments, she gathered the students for a large group photo. Then she asked them to all return to class, which they did.
Public Information Officer Wayde Byard said principals were instructed to tell students that there would be consequences for leaving school early, in line with punishments typically given for tardies, absences and/or leaving school without permission.
Woodgrove High School students were warned by Principal Sam Shipp this morning that any one who participated in the walk out would face disciplinary action. Specifically, he said they would preclude students from being involved in athletics or any other school activity.
The president’s executive order barring refugees and citizens from the seven countries has been temporary blocked by a federal district judge. A federal appeals court voted 3-0 Thursday to uphold that decision.