Students walk out of class as part of national protest

They were dressed in black to mourn the victims of the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting as they protested gun violence with their teachers Wednesday morning.

The students at Madison Senior High School joined those across the U.S. who left their classrooms at 10 a.m. for the National School Walkout protest.

The demonstrations came one month after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Walkouts were scheduled to last for 17 minutes, one minute for each of the 17 people who died in the school shooting.

Damien James, 16, said he wanted to participate in Madison to honor them.

“I feel like it’s right because if I was in their situation, I would want somebody to walk for me, too,” he said. “Like, at least do something for me.”

He and his classmates marched up 6th Street near the school holding signs that read “Never again.”

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Jahanna Gillespie, Anthony Walker Jr., and Rhyheem Samuels hold signs with #Never Again as they march with other students from Madison Junior/Senior High School. The students held an organized walkout march through the neighborhood by their school. Derik Holtmann

Social studies teacher Reneesha Sanders said she marched with students “because we don’t want this to happen in our schools. We don’t want this to happen ever again in any schools.”

Damien and Darria Miller, another 16-year-old from Madison, said they’ve talked to their friends about school shootings.

“We talk about what we’re going to do if a school shooter comes in or if anybody comes in that’s not welcome,” Darria said.

Damien’s friends decided they would use windows to escape and run, he said.

“When we hear stuff about it, we talk about it,” Damien said.

Thalia Johnson, a high school student in O’Fallon, 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 O’Fallon Township High School, like several other schools in the metro-east, students faced punishment if they walked out of their classrooms Wednesday as part of the national protest.

In a letter to parents, O’Fallon District 203 Superintendent Darcy Benway said it would be considered skipping.

“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 anyway, O’Fallon Township High School 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.

In Highland, students could participate with permission from their parents. About 28 high school students gathered to pay tribute to the Parkland victims. Three middle school students joined them.

No media or non-school personnel were allowed on school grounds during the Highland demonstration, other than the parents of the three Highland Middle School students, who walked their children across the street to the high school.

The middle school students brought a sign with them made from a bed sheet. Spray-painted in blue and gold, it read “Protecting kids is not political” in response to administrators’ request that students not bring political signs to school Wednesday.

“We come from a community where everybody knows everybody; it’s really small and we think that we are somehow untouchable,” said Joanna Fogg, one of the Highland Middle School students. “But we need to get it out there that this kind of stuff can happen to any community. We need to put a stop to it.”

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Three Highland Middle School students, escorted by their parents, walked across the street to participate in the walkout at Highland High School on Wednesday morning. Pictured from left: seventh-grader Joanna Fogg, seventh-grader Grace Powers, and sixth-grader Hillary McLaughlin. They made a sign that read "Protecting Kids is Not Political." Curt Libbra

While students demonstrated outside, Highland High School Principal Karen Gauen said 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.

At Belleville West High School, students organized a walkout through Twitter and flyers they handed out at lunch.

Skylr Koehler, a senior and one of the walkout organizers, said they wanted to have an event at West where students could talk about school safety and remember the Parkland victims “because it is a really hard time for teenagers.”

Since the 2017 shooting at a music festival in Las Vegas and the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Skylr said she has become more “emotionally attached to the problem.”

She feels differently about seeing strangers in her school.

“It shouldn’t worry you, but especially now, it worries me a lot more,” Skylr said.

At least 100 students walked out of school at Belleville West, according to organizers Kierney Burks and Cori White.

A half dozen police vehicles were seen in the front and back parking lots at Belleville East High School, where students participated in the walkout in a safe location, according to Principal Jason Karstens.

Althoff Catholic High School students got involved through a memorial mass for the Parkland victims Wednesday.

More than 100 students from East St. Louis Senior High School walked out of their classrooms to call for gun safety in schools and communities, East St. Louis District 189 spokesperson Sydney Stigge-Kaufman said. About 25 students from the Younge Alternative Center also walked out of the school.

Behind the protest

Students planned the events that took place at their schools Wednesday, in many cases working with their administrators.

But the group that called for the nationwide demonstrations is Women’s March Youth EMPOWER. It is hoping the walkouts will influence lawmakers to pass gun control legislation. These are the changes the group is asking for:

  • Banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

  • Expanding background checks to all gun sales.

  • Passing legislation establishing gun violence restraining orders.

  • Passing the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act.

  • Stopping legislation establishing conceal carry reciprocity.

  • Stopping legislation to add more guns to protect schools against attack, including proposals to arm teachers.

In Illinois, Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed a bill related to guns sales the day before the National School Walkout protests.

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Students and faculty at Madison Senior High School held an organized walkout march through the neighborhood near their school on March 14, 2018. Derik Holtmann

The legislation would have required gun retailers to be licensed by the state, to undergo training and to begin videotaping some areas of their businesses, including where guns are stored.

It passed in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly in response to the school shooting in Parkland and to address gun violence in Chicago. The Republican governor said the bill would have hurt small business owners and wouldn’t have made communities safer.

A small group of Illinois legislators, including Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville, walked out of the state capitol Wednesday in support of the student protests.

The Associated Press, BND reporter Kaley Johnson and BND photographer Steve Nagy contributed to this report.