Chicago-area students walk out in protest of school shootings

By Serena Yeh
Medill Reports

At Oak Park and River Forest High School Wednesday morning, around 1000 students, many wearing orange in solidarity, walked out of their classes at 10 a.m., carrying signs protesting gun violence while marching around their school compound.

At Evanston Township High School, almost all 3,500 students entered their football stadium to chants of “Enough is Enough” and “NRA, Go Away.”

As they filled the bleachers, the students were given papers with a script template and 12 legislators’ phone numbers.

After listening to speeches from student senators, the ETHS students huddled in groups of twos or threes and made calls to pressure the lawmakers.

These students were among tens of thousands from elementary to middle to high schools to colleges across Chicago and the suburbs who marched out of their classes at 10 a.m. to protest gun violence and to stand for the victims of last month’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, where 17 people were killed.

Most walkouts were slated to last for 17 minutes in honor of the victims, but some stretched longer to allow students to give speeches.

The focus was on students, but they were supported by corps of parents and community members lining near-campus roadsides and displaying their own signs.

Walkouts took place at a number of the 167 high schools under the purview of Chicago Public Schools, including the Chicago High School for the Arts and Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, Michelle Obama’s alma mater.

According to the principals of these schools, demonstrations were planned by students and facilitated by administrative personnel seeking to convey support for the students’ message.

Joyce Kenner, principal of Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, said, “As the principal, I think it is important for us as adults to lend students an opportunity to have a voice.”

“It went off without any incident at all. I was very impressed with their respectfulness and maturity,” Kenner added.

Later in the evening, a group of about 30 high school students rallied for investment in counseling and mental health in their schools, outside the Chicago Public Schools Loop headquarters. The students came from Southwest Side public schools in the Brighton Park and Archer Heights neighborhoods.

They congregated outside the doors of CPS headquarters for about 15 minutes, starting shortly before 5:30 p.m., chanting “less talk, more action!” and carrying a banner that read “Schools, not prisons.”

Multiple colleges and universities planned events, as students from Northwestern University, Truman College, Malcolm X College, Roosevelt University, Columbia College and the University of Illinois-Chicago staged demonstrations of varying scope.

Some took place in the morning during the national plan for 10 a.m., but others lasted into the afternoon.

ETHS students participate in their walkout. (Photo by Ilana Marcus/Medill Reports)

Northwestern played host to a day-long menu of events starting at 10 a.m. Students held a walkout and moment of silence, along with a letter-writing campaign aimed at politicians. Mid-afternoon reports of an active shooter sent the campus into lockdown and put a planned evening candlelit vigil on hold.

However, activities for some other schools also had to be scrapped after rumors of threats to students’ safety.

Southwest suburban Romeoville High School canceled a walkout protest after a threat showing a student with a weapon was posted on Instagram Tuesday night.

Romeoville police later determined the threat was not credible and the weapon pictured in the post was an air-soft gun, but students stayed in class nonetheless.

Showing solidarity with students across the nation, approximately 100 Illinois senators, lobbyists and staff also walked out at the Capitol in Springfield Wednesday morning to remember those who have died from gun violence in Chicago and throughout the United States.

The Senate also later approved bills that would ban bump stocks and trigger cranks, extend the waiting period for assault weapons to 72 hours and increase the age of purchase for assault-style weapons.

The organized walkouts were not received well by some in opposition, specifically the Chicago GOP, which announced in a statement it would sue CPS for “political indoctrination” for allowing elementary schools to participate in the walkouts.

“It’s a violation of CPS policy, of state law, and of the First Amendment for a government-run school to organize a political demonstration and pressure students to participate in it,” Chicago GOP’s Chris Cleveland said in a statement.

Despite naysayers and negative comments on Twitter that sought to bring down the morale of students, across campuses, the students stuck to their plans and relentlessly called representatives, gave impassioned speeches and sold items to raise funds for their campaigns to demand for gun-reform legislation.

At ETHS, students were given the phone numbers of politicians, including Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, and U.S. Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth.

The script template they received urged students to keep calling until they get connected, asking them to demand the legislator’s stance towards several issues that were important to them such as mandatory mental-health assessments, concealed and open-carry permits and bump stocks, among others.

“I should not be getting phone calls from my 11-year-old niece begging me and asking if I think she should be homeschooled because she doesn’t know that the next day when she goes to school if she’s going to come home,” said Sofia Garcia. “For some people, the right to own and carry a gun is more important than my life, and our safety.”

One student Erika Bailey, 15, remarked she had never called before, while another student Brandon Wilson, 15, said a state representative had hung up on them.

Seven students also gave speeches to the energized crowd.

“I should not be getting phone calls from my 11-year-old niece begging me and asking if I think she should be homeschooled because she doesn’t know that the next day when she goes to school if she’s going to come home,” said Sofia Garcia, in a speech. “For some people, the right to own and carry a gun is more important than my life, and our safety.”

Another 200 students at the Chicago High School for the Arts walked out of their classes and stood on Augusta Avenue at 10 a.m. for the 17-minute duration.

A student organizer read the names of Chicago gun-violence victims while others were silent for two minutes, which was followed by a silence at the 17th minute on behalf of the Parkland victims.

Although there was not much traffic along the street at the time, three to four drivers honked as they passed by and roused a cheer from the students.

At West Aurora High School, students walked out of their classes to the school’s football stadium to form the words “never again” with their 2000 bodies. The school had called in extra police officers to ensure greater security, said principal Charles Hiscock.

“We are very proud of the kids and we can help them in this one instance so their voices could be heard,” said Hiscock. “We want the students to not just be progressing but learn how to make changes that are actually helpful.”

Throughout the city and suburbs north, west and south, parents and members of the community stood outside of schools’ campuses to show their support for students.

At Naperville Central High School, Jeff Anderson was one of about a dozen bystanders who watched outside as the students walked from their classrooms onto the athletics field for a silent protest.

Anderson said he learned his daughter Lauren was one of the five student organizers through reading the news. He said that whether other parents agree or disagree with their kid’s position, seeing them getting involved in societal issues was what they wanted.

Lauren and her peers, Anderson said, make him proud. He said he was impressed by how the students used social media to spread their message.

“They are a lot deeper than we all think,” said Anderson. “They get it, they get what they’re there for.”

ETHS students brought made homemade signs to the walkout. (Photo by Ilana Marcus/Medill Reports)

Sheela Raja, mother of a student at Oak Park and River Forest High, was standing outside the main entrance of the school and held a sign of support that said, “Students: May You Succeed Where Our Generation Has FAILED You.”

“We have been trying, and we have not done right to this generation,” said Raja.

Another parent, Kathy Samaan, who has two children at OPRFHS, said, “The school is the only safe place where kids can be. They should be able to feel safe in school, and guns don’t make people feel safe.”

Patrick Engel, Kaitlin Englund, Chris Kwiecinski, Xin Liu, Ilana Marcus, Giulia Petroni, Nathan Rizzo and Robbie Weinstein contributed to this report.

Evanston Township High School students fill the stands during their walkout on Wednesday morning. (Ilana Marcus/Medill Reports)