Last Wednesday morning, 31 Highland students participated in a national walkout as part of a protest against gun violence.
"This was quite a day at HHS," said Dr. Karen Gauen, the school's principal.
Twenty-eight of the students were from Highland High School. Three students from Highland Middle School, who were accompanied by their parents, also participated.
Highland students, like many in other districts, worked with administrators to coordinate the nationwide event. The demonstration was scheduled for 10 a.m. March 14, one month after a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, claimed the lives of 17 students. The walkout lasted for 17 minutes, one minute for each student who died in the shooting.
Several schools in the metro-east participated in the protest, though several others said they would punish students if they did. Each participating school carried its walkout in a different way. Demonstrations varied from students walking out of school and up streets holding "Never again" signs in Madison, to a memorial Mass at Althoff Catholic High School in Belleville.
In Highland, students could participate in the walkout with permission from their parents. Students also had the choice to remain in study hall or participate in a conversation about school safety, which the Highland Police Department facilitated in the school's common area.
The participating students huddled together in a tight group to quietly reflect on the Florida tragedy. During the protest, Gauen described the students as thoughtful, informed, intelligent and respectful.
"They give me hope for the future," she said.
No media or non-school personnel were allowed on school grounds during the Highland demonstration.
"We just can’t have any harassment of our students, whether they support the rally or they don't," said Superintendent Mike Sutton.
However, the parents of three attending middle school students were allowed on the grounds. HMS students were allowed to participate as long as a parent came to sign them in and out for the demonstration.
Though the district asked no one to bring any political signs, the three girls brought a sign made from a bed sheet. Spray-painted in blue and gold, it read “Protecting kids is not political!”
Hillary McLaughlin, parent of sixth-grader Zoe McLaughlin, said the students wanted to abide by what the school said, though they wanted a chance to use their voice.
"So we think that that's a pretty good balance of the two," McLaughlin said.
Seventh-grader Joanna Fogg said she was participating to help spread awareness in the community.
"If it is worth it to her to be here instead of in there (HMS), I'm going to be right where I am right now, right behind her," Christopher Fogg said.
Jennifer Powers said she supported the decision her seventh-grade daughter, Grace, made to participate. During the event, Powers said that many of the students had "some very adult things to say," and her daughter was no exception.
"We're humans, and we need to respect each other, and it needs to be a thing to where there is only kindness in the world, because you won't get anywhere with anger and aggression," Grace said.
While students demonstrated outside, Gauen said that about 30-40 students gathered inside the high school to talk with a Highland police officer about school safety.
As a sort of counter-protest, several high school students wore camouflage to school Wednesday. But Gauen said they were respectful to each other.
"I'm always proud of our students. But I've never been more proud of them than I am today," Gauen said.