About 90 students from O’Fallon Township High School, like several other schools in the metro-east, faced punishment for walking out of their classrooms last week as a part of a National School Walkout.
Roughly 40 freshmen from OTHS Milburn campus and 50 from OTHS Smiley campus were recorded as having a class suspension.
According to Darcy Benway, OTHS District 203 superintendent, this is the "same discipline that would occur for walking out and skipping class any other day of the year. The discipline is for walking out and skipping class, not for protesting."
"For those skipping class and exiting the building peacefully, they were 'pink slipped,' a class suspension," Darcy Benway, OTHS District 203 superintendent, said.
No detentions were issued, Benway confirmed.
Students who skipped class were not allowed to return to class, which Benway said, "...would create a disruption for those who were trying to learn."
Benway went on to say, "I am very proud of our students who chose to protest, as they did so peacefully and respectfully."
The demonstrations came one month after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Walkouts were scheduled to take place at 10 a.m. March 14 and last for 17 minutes, one minute for each of the 17 people who died in the school shooting.
According to school policy, students who are late to classes by 24 minutes or less are considered tardy, and anything past 25 minutes is deemed absent.
"It is very distracting for teachers and students if individuals are coming and going while a lesson is being taught," Benway said.
Students on the Milburn campus were in the middle of third period classes from 9:30 to 10:25 a.m. while students at the Smiley campus were in third period classes, advisory or lunch periods, which run from 10 a.m. to 10:55 a.m.
In a letter to parents on March 8, Benway addressed the national event, as well as others, and warned of disciplinary action.
“OTHS District 203 supports a student’s Constitutional right to protest and to engage in peaceful assembly,” Benway wrote. “However, a school walkout-protest is an act of civil disobedience and, by definition, a violation of rules.”
For about 50 students who participated at the O'Fallon Smiley campus, junior Jordain Carpenter said, “the message we are trying to send is more important than any discipline the school is going to give to us.”
“It’s to send a message that as a nation, as students, we are not going to let these shootings go by like another day,” Jordain added.
"The fact that all these shootings are happening, people are even scared just to go to school because they don't know if they're going to get shot or not today because the shootings are so unpredictable, but yet they happen all the time," Thalia said
She said she would make two phone calls: one to her parents and one to her brother, who is also a student, “to see if he is OK and safe.”
At least 13 metro-east schools worked with students to allow some type of participation in the national event, including Alton, Columbia, Collinsville, Freeburg, Highland, Madison, Granite City, Mascoutah, Roxana, Sparta, Triad and Wesclin high schools. Some of the schools who allowed participation required parent permission slips.
Nick Boone, a senior at O'Fallon High, student council president and varsity baseball player, wanted to join his peers in the national protest but didn't out of fear of discipline.
The day before the protest, Boone was asked, along with other students in one of his classes, to write an essay about the National School Walkout.
Boone wrote about his feelings and frustrations revolving around the protest and the lack of cooperation from the administration to provide a way for students to participate in the national event.
"A peaceful walkout is not going to fix every problem in the world, but it at least shows that OTHS is backing the kids trying to make change and mourning the loss of the kids and students at Stoneman Douglas. All we are trying to do is show them that we are behind them," Boone wrote.
He went on: "OTHS has a mission statement for, 'students to become informed decision makers, engaged learners and responsible citizens in an ever-changing and diverse society. OTHS is all about change but is not letting us participate in change. A lot of schools in the Midwest and the nation will be participating, but not O'Fallon, the punishments deter our support for the cause....I guess at OTHS we don't practice what we preach."
Jaron Dent, OTHS teacher and coach, was one of the handful of school staff on standby to monitor the peaceful protest that occurred behind the Smiley campus.
"I'm just here for the kids," Dent said.
While students were walking out of classrooms across the nation March 14, the U.S. House of Representatives took action to help schools acquire and install panic buttons for alerting law enforcement to incidents of classroom violence.
The bipartisan H.R. 4909 STOP School Violence Act proposal was introduced in January and passed 407-10.
“As a former first responder, I know response time is vitally important during emergency situations," U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphsboro, said. “We have panic buttons in banks, office buildings, and retail locations, there is no reason we shouldn’t have them at our schools to protect our children. I’m proud the House passed this bipartisan, commonsense proposal I worked on with Representative Schneider to protect our kids.”
A small group of Illinois legislators, including Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville, walked out of the state capitol March 14 in support of the student protests.
March For Our Lives
OTHS students started their own O'Fallon chapter of March For Our Lives, a global movement to raise awareness for school safety in the wake of recent increased school shootings. The O'Fallon chapter is planning a march March 24 in the parking lot across the street from O'Fallon City Hall, 255 S. Lincoln Ave.
Participants will begin the march at 8:30 a.m. headed east on Third Street to South Smiley Street, then to Sixth Street and South Augusta. From there marchers will continue north on South Augusta Street circling back to East Third Street.
Marchers may carry signs, but anything depicting vulgar language or drawings will be prohibited by police.
A few speakers will address marchers at the parking lot east of City Hall with the event to end by 11 a.m.
The special event permit was approved by the city council on March 12 with four O'Fallon Police officers assigned to ensure a safe assembly and march.