In Southern Illinois, Wednesday's National School Walkout on gun violence took many forms
Isaac Smith / ISAAC SMITH
Students walk to the Sparta High School gym during Wednesday’s
nation-wide student and teacher walkout. Participating students
were asked to come to the gym to talk about school safety. The
protest was scheduled to last 17 minutes, one minute for each
person that died in last month’s school shooting in Florida, but
Sparta’s discussion lasted more than an hour.
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.
“If you try and hire a school resource officer, that costs money,” Pope County High School principal Ryan Fritch said. “A lot of the school infrastructure upgrades you’d like to make for security purposes are hard to do because the funding structure isn’t there.”
“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
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.
School resource officers have become a topic of discussion in the wake of recent school shootings.
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
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.”