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The Beach Boys perform at the 2017 Black Tie & Boots Presidential Inaugural Ball in Maryland on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017. The band will play at this year's HerrinFesta.

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National School Walkout
In Southern Illinois, Wednesday's National School Walkout on gun violence took many forms

SPARTA — At 10 a.m. Wednesday, students throughout the region stood in solidarity together — they walked out of class to ask for an end to gun violence and to honor the lives lost in recent school shootings.

Wednesday’s walkout was the first in a series of protests aimed at gun violence. The March for Our Lives protest will be held next week.

“On March 24, the kids and families of March For Our Lives will take to the streets to demand that their lives and safety become a priority, and that we end gun violence in our schools and communities,” the event's website says of the protest.

Next month will see the third gun violence protest on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting that killed 15, including the two gunmen. This event is calling for high school students to walk out of class to again demand action on gun violence in schools.

What they did and why they did it

Isaac Smith / ISAAC SMITH The Southern 

Sparta High School Principal, Scott Beckley, takes student questions during Wednesday’ national school walkout in protest of school violence. Students at Sparta who wanted to participate in the event were asked to come to the gym for a discussion.

Seventeen minutes, that’s how long they demonstrated — one minute for each life lost in Florida last month when a gunman opened fire after pulling the fire alarm at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

None did it the exact same way. In Du Quoin, students gathered around the flagpole outside the high school. In Herrin, hundreds of students gathered in the hall to link arms for a moment of silence. In Sparta, principal Scott Beckley talked with more than 100 students about their concerns with school safety.

Beckley started the conversation by asking a question.

“Who can tell me why we are down here? he said to the crowd of what he estimated to be about 120 students in the gym bleachers. Some raised their hands and answered — school safety, remembering those who have died, protesting gun violence.

Beckley said when it comes to the subject of school shootings, the biggest question he faces is: “How do we keep it from happening?”

There was no one answer. Some students asked about metal detectors, others student resource officers, and still others asked if teachers would ever be armed at Sparta.

“Not as long as I am here,” Gabe Schwemmer, the Sparta School District superintendent, said in response from her seat among the students.

One student said she was at a loss of what to do in the face of mounting school violence.

“I don’t know how we can make things safer,” she said, adding that for every solution there is a workaround — if you build a 10-foot wall, someone is bound to build an 11-foot ladder.

Sparta’s conversation settled on what students themselves can do if there were ever a shooter at Sparta High School. Beckley said there is no plan that works in every situation — he said he tells teachers when they ask what to do in X or Y situations that he will not be in their classrooms to tell them how to react, they just have to use their best judgement.

“You’re on your own,” he said, adding that he would tell students the same thing — use their best judgement on how to get out of the situation alive. “I want to count live bodies,” Beckley said.

The unavoidable topic of gun control also came up. The conversation was moderate.

“I don’t want to take anyone’s guns away, I just want to feel safe in my school,” one student said.

Beckley himself said he respects the laws that are on the books, but he said he just doesn’t “see the need” for assault-style weapons like the AR-15 — the gun used during last month’s massacre in Florida.

Toward the close of the discussion, students wanted to know how to actually get their voices out and heard. They talked about who their representatives and senators were at both the state and federal levels. Some talked about writing letters and encouraging others to do the same, all hearkening back to a statement their school guidance counselor said at the start of the event.

“It’s not enough just to protest. Do something,” Sheila Eaton said.

What was scheduled to last little more than 15 minutes lasted more than an hour, with a core group of about 40 students staying for the discussion. Beckley was heartened and surprised by the response.

“Seventeen minutes was a long time,” he said afterward, adding that the discussion exceeded his expectations.

Isaac Smith / ISAAC SMITH The Southern 

Sparta High School Principal, Scott Beckley, asks for a show of hands Wednesday during a discussion on school safety and violence prevention. The discussion was held as a way for students to participate in the national school walkout scheduled for that day. Nationally thousands of students and teachers walked out class at 10 a.m. and stayed out for 17 minutes — one minute for each life lost during last month’s school shooting in Florida.

Du Quoin High School took a more hands-off approach to the walkout.

“The approach that we took with our students and faculty is, this is being presented as a form of protest,” Matt Hickam, the school’s principal, said, adding that they stood in no one’s way if they chose to participate.

Hickam said the students that chose to walk out were told to do so quietly without disrupting class — they were also given an unexcused absence for the time they were not in class.

Hickam said this was done for two reasons — he said the school needed to maintain a level of neutrality, but also, he said he wanted the kids to learn that with protesting sometimes comes sacrifices, adding that some students weren’t willing to take the absence.

Shying away from politics

bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

Herrin High School juniors Gabrielle Hawk (from left), Hayden Holloway and Reagan Ridgway read a statement over the school's intercom prior to a minute of silence to mark the one month anniversary of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, on Wednesday morning in Herrin.

In Marion and Herrin, administrators worked with students to design rallies that were distinctly apolitical.

“We wanted to keep it nonpolitical and just about the people who lost their lives,” Reagan Ridgeway, a junior at Herrin High School, said. Ridgeway is one of the Tiger Pride Team members who helped organize with the administration her school’s event.

At 10 a.m., Kris Mason, the school’s assistant principal, came on the school’s loudspeaker.

"At this time, we will have our remembrance ceremony. If you do not want to participate, please remain seated in your class. For those who want to take part, please move into the hallway and link arms or join hands."

Mason said from teacher accounts — he was in the office during the event — there were close to 600 students who participated out of about 715 students.

As students linked arms, Mason said Ridgeway and her fellow student leaders read about the students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

“Every one of them woke up that morning and got ready for what they expected to be regular day at school, not knowing that it would be their last. In remembrance of them, we will now lock arms and observe a moment of silence,” they read — Mason provided a copy of their script via email.

After their moment of silence, the school’s principal, Jeffrey Johnson, read a Dr. Seuss quote.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Students then filed back into their classrooms, in a more muted display than the scenes from around the country, where students took to schoolyards and state capitols demanding action on gun violence.

“I felt different. When I went back to class everyone was still quiet,” said Gabrielle Hawk, a junior who serves on the Tiger Pride Team with Ridgeway.

Marion High School Principal Joey Ohnesorge said he worked with the recently formed student advisory council on an alternative “walk up not out” unity event for students who wished to participate in the planned walkout. The event was closed to the media on the recommendation of the Illinois Principals Association, Ohnesorge said, but he recalled the events in a later interview.

He said between 300 and 400 students participated. They talked about reaching out to those in need to stem violence in the future and create an atmosphere of inclusion. He said they also showed images of the victims from Florida as students read details of their lives. They also honored the victims of the Marshall County, Kentucky, shooting that took place just over a month before the Parkland mass shooting.

Ohnesorge said one reason they organized a closed, indoor event was for safety reasons — having kids go outside exposed them to risk.

However, he said despite the intention from the movement’s creators, The Women’s March Youth Empower, there was not a mention of gun violence.

“Everything is out there on gun violence and the violence you see across the nations in schools, and we put our own spin on it,” Ohnesorge said about the school’s politically neutral take on the day. He said the school preferred “not to have a political agenda.”

“It’s not the message that we wanted to send,” he said. “We wanted to, I guess, turn this into a positive day for us.”

When asked if some students protested despite the event, Ohnesorge said they did not, and said “we feel very good about that.”

He might have missed 17-year-old senior Avery Baldwin, who said he was the only student who chose to walk out of school instead of into the gym.

Not about numbers

Baldwin said while he liked the sentiment of the rally held in the gym — he appreciated the discussion about bullying and inclusion — he thought it could have been better timed.

“They should do it on their own time, not when we are planning to make a difference,” Baldwin said. “To me it felt like damage control before it actually happened.”

He said he did not see the school-sanctioned event as a protest, and thought that more kids would have also walked out if the school had not organized its own event.

Baldwin said he walked out not only to honor the lives lost last month in Florida, but to also to advocate for tighter gun laws.

“I obviously don’t want guns taken away, but I would like a little more moderation,” he said, adding that he lives in a house with an AR-15, though he does not shoot it himself.

Baldwin said though he didn’t act in the school-approved way during Wednesday’s protest, he didn’t get in any trouble with school officials. This is not to say he was comfortable, though.

“They had a state trooper there guarding the front door,” Baldwin said. “My heart was racing the whole time.” He was prepared to stand up for his right to peacefully assemble if questioned. However, he said aside from a few curious people, no one really noticed him.

That doesn't matter to him, though. He proved something to himself. As one with a lot of firm political beliefs, he said he’s not usually one for action.

“It felt really good to do something actively for once,” Baldwin said.

That he was the only one out there didn't matter him, he said. 

“I was just kind of determined,” he said.

For those waiting to take action on their beliefs, Baldwin had some advice.

“Don’t let the fact that you are the only one scare you, because if it’s something you believe, I feel like you should just go for it,” he said. “The worst thing that can happen is someone will just tell you to go back inside.”


CHICAGO — Thousands of students at schools across Illinois participated in a national walkout to demand action on gun violence.

Students in places like the Chicago area, Decatur, Pekin, Quincy and Madison left classes Wednesday morning. The walkouts come after a gunman killed 17 students last month at a high school in Parkland, Florida. Students were urged to leave class at 10 a.m. local time for 17 minutes — one minute for each of the dead in Florida.

In the Chicago area, students wore orange and carried signs while shouting "Enough!" Barrington High School senior Syd Bakal said teens "are tired of lockdown drills, fear and perpetual mourning."

At West Aurora High School about 2,000 students walked to the football stadium where they formed the words "never again." In Decatur one protest sign read "Protect Us!"

breaking top story
Carbondale officials planning Halloween-themed fall festival for downtown

CARBONDALE — The City of Carbondale, in partnership with the Carbondale Business Development Corporation, is discussing a fall festival to take place in downtown Carbondale.

The tentative date for the event is Oct. 27, and it is planned to be connected to Halloween.

Economic Development Director Steven Mitchell said there was a festival committee formed after hearing from local business owners after the eclipse about the city having a signature event each year. He said there was strong sentiment that the city should tie in Halloween with an event.

“The festival committee is aware of the history surrounding Halloween in Carbondale, and we felt it best to seek guidance from the City Council before more time was invested in planning for this event,” Mitchell said. “This name recognition could be used to our advantage if we embrace that connection.”

The festival would be an all-day event, he said, ranging from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Events would include a 5K race, family-centered, child-friendly events like pumpkin races, and arts and craft vendors. Additionally, the committee is pursuing musical entertainment that appeal to a regional, adult audience — with local bands represented.

City documents say food and drink vendors would be available, as well as a possible seasonal craft beer competition, which is still under discussion by the committee.

The Carbondale Business Development Corporation has donated $25,000 to the festival and has committed another $25,000 in matching funds on the conditions the corporation is listed as a sponsor and the word Halloween is used in the festival name.

Carbondale Mayor Mike Henry strongly supported the idea, saying the act of bringing more entertainment downtown is something the city has been proceeding with since he was elected.

“We have been experimenting with this, but the days of the old Halloween are gone,” he said. “But there are a lot of people who look like me that were here then, and we are hoping they will come back.”

He said past Halloweens got to the point where it was unpleasant, because there were a lot of people from outside the city — who didn’t care about the city — that would “tear things up.”

“I am 150,000 percent behind this,” Henry said. “It is a very good initiative.”

City Manager Gary Williams said the city has $25,000 earmarked for events in general, but it will pursue sponsorships and donations as much as possible.

For those who want to help or have ideas, contact Mitchell at 618-457-3286 or email him at



Illinois Democratic Primary
Top Democrats go on attack at final governor primary debate

CHICAGO — The top Democratic candidates for Illinois governor went after each other in a spirited debate Wednesday, with billionaire J.B. Pritzker denying claims he used offshore accounts to avoid taxes and rivals Chris Kennedy and Daniel Biss saying he's unfit to be the party's nominee.

"You do not want a liar as the governor of the state of Illinois," Kennedy said.

Biss compared Pritzker, who like Kennedy has not released his full tax returns, to President Donald Trump. He noted Democrats in 2016 railed against Trump for refusing to make his tax returns public and asked: "Do we want this in the Democratic nominee for governor?"

Pritzker, who's led in polling throughout the race and has the support of many in the Democratic establishment, accused Biss and Kennedy of attacking him because they're trailing with the primary just days away.

"These attacks are an avoidance of their own records," he said. "They need to answer for their own records."

The debate at WTTW-TV was the candidates' final meeting before Tuesday's primary, and it was often chippy. At one point, Biss accused Pritzker of using "an unbelievable mess of word salad" to try to distract voters. At another point Kennedy told Biss, "You talk too much."

The Democratic nominee will face the winner of the GOP primary between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and his conservative challenger, state Rep. Jeanne Ives.

Much of the debate focused on a story published Wednesday by the Chicago Tribune. The newspaper reported it found several offshore shell companies created between 2008 and 2011 that are wholly owned by Pritzker or connected to him. One of those companies is part of a deal to buy city-owned land along the Chicago River and start downtown duck boat tours.

Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune, said Wednesday the companies were created by trusts formed decades ago for the purposes of charitable giving.

"I have no control over those trusts," the Chicago businessman said.

Pritzker also said he listed his assets on the statement of economic interests he filed with the state as part of his bid for governor, and that any distributions from the trusts went to charity, adding: "There's no tax avoidance here."

His rivals weren't buying it.

"Lie, lie, lie, lie, lie," said Kennedy, a businessman from Kenilworth and the son of the late U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy.

Biss, an Evanston state senator who's campaigned as "the middle-class candidate," accused both Pritzker and Kennedy of trying to buy the election and said he offered "a different vision of politics."

But Kennedy and Pritzker criticized Biss' record in Springfield, noting he sponsored legislation to cut public-employee pensions. It was one of two different votes that Kennedy referenced by saying "there's nothing worse that a Democrat can do." Kennedy added Biss was "part of a failed system" in Springfield and said it was time to bring change to Illinois.

Biss has said he made a mistake when he supported the 2013 pension measure, which the Illinois Supreme Court later found unconstitutional, but added: "I'm proud of my record in the Legislature."

Pritzker also attacked Kennedy for raising tuition five times when he was chairman of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees. Pritzker said that led to a drop in minority enrollment at the state's flagship university.

Kennedy responded that the decrease was due to the 2008-2009 financial crisis, and questioned whether Pritzker — whose net worth Forbes puts at $3.5 billion — was aware that the economic crisis had happened.

Three other Democratic candidates who've trailed in polling weren't invited to participate in Wednesday's forum: regional schools superintendent Bob Daiber, anti-violence activist Tio Hardiman and physician Robert Marshall.