Hundreds of students at Riverside-Brookfield High School and Lyons Township High Schools and other local schools walked out of their classes at 10 a.m. on March 14 to protest gun violence and gather in solidarity with survivors and the 17 Parkland, Florida, high school students killed by an assault rifle-wielding former classmate on Feb. 14.
The walkouts were part of a nationwide movement seeking to strengthen U.S. gun laws and prevent the kinds of mass shootings carried out at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last month.
As they left the school buildings into freezing temperatures, many students held signs reading “End Gun Violence,” “Never Again” and “Fear Has No Place in Our Schools.” At both local high schools, well-wishers and the press were kept at a distance.
While several students spoke to their classmates at RBHS, the lack of any type of sound system made it impossible for many, including a reporter who attended, to hear what students leading the walkout had to say to their classmates.
The RBHS student newspaper, The Clarion, later posted video of the speeches from the rally at the stadium.
One of those student leaders, Olutosin Olowu, shared with the Landmark her brief statement, which emphasized the need to address gun violence.
“Unnecessary gun violence shouldn’t be politicized. Safety shouldn’t be politicized. The well-being of our children shouldn’t be politicized,” Olowu said. “School shootings should not be normalized, and we have the power to break the cycle.
“The power has and will always lie within the youth. It’s up to us.”
Several hundred students began leaving the school a little before the official 10 a.m. start time and gathered on the track. Students walked around the field at the RBHS stadium both before and after student leaders addressed them.
About 25 well-wishers, some holding signs, stationed themselves along the south fence of the stadium and encouraged the participants with shouts of “we hear you, we’re listening” and “register to vote” as they paraded around the stadium.
RBHS principal Kristin Smetana estimated that about 600 – or a little less than half – of the student body participated in the walkout, which went off without incident.
“All students who chose to participate in the student-led National School Walkout complied with the expectations put in place to ensure students’ safety,” Smetana said in an email. “Students promptly returned to class after the 17 minutes transpired.”
According to LTHS spokeswoman Jennifer Bialobok, about 300 students took part in the walkout at the North Campus in LaGrange while about 700 walked out at the South Campus.
Both gatherings were held at the flagpoles outside each school, where students read out the names of the 17 Parkland victims and released 17 balloons. About two dozen community members gathered across Brainard Avenue from the North Campus.
“We weren’t surprised by the respectful and peaceful demonstration of our students,” Bialobok said in an email. “We have very mature students, who obviously feel strongly about the issue of school violence. We support their right to peacefully demonstrate and have their voices heard.”
While the actions of high school students have gained most of the attention nationally, students in middle schools and grade schools in Brookfield, North Riverside and Riverside participated in activities that included everything from making banners to moments of silence, holding prayer services and their own walkouts.
About 35 elementary school students in grades one through six at Congress Park School in Brookfield staged a silent walkout to demonstrate against gun violence in general and for more safety in schools.
The students, who were outside for about 20 minutes, mostly stood silently in front of the main entrance at Congress Park. After about 15 minutes, Congress Park Principal Claudia Jimenez led the students on a short walk around the school.
Jimenez said that the walkout was organized by the students themselves.
“It wasn’t organized at the school level, but we felt that it was important for them to exercise their own rights if they felt that they wanted to,” Jimenez said.
Each principal in LaGrange-Brookfield District 102 was allowed to decide if they wanted to allow students to participate in National Walkout Day and, if so, what kind of participation, they would have.
A few Congress Park parents showed up to support the students.
Maria Secaida, the mother of a fourth-grader who participated in the walkout, said she came to support her daughter.
“We need the government to do something to keep our children and school staff safe,” Secaida said.
Jen Brown, the mother of a second-grader, also came to support the students.
“It’s certainly a heavy topic, but the kids are more aware than we think they are,” Brown said.
Students held signs carrying messages such as “Books Not Bullets,” “Arms are for Hugging,” “Make Better Gun Laws” and “My Future is Bright and Safe.”
Two teachers and District 102 Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Christopher Finch were also outside quietly observing.
“It was quite pleasant,” Finch said.
Fifth-grade teacher Joseph Giordano said that eight of the 25 students in his class participated in the walkout. The other students in his class remained behind learning about the Louisiana Purchase and the construction of railroads.
At St. Mary School in Riverside, students gathered outside alongside Principal Barbara Rasinski and Rev. Tom May, the parish’s pastor, for a prayer service.
While school officials kept students either on school property or adjacent to their buildings during local walkouts, one Riverside school decided to let students wander farther afield.
About 10 students at Tallgrass Sudbury School, a tiny, progressive school housed at Riverside United Methodist Church, walked through downtown Riverside, carrying signs decrying gun violence.
The decision to walk around the central business district, like all decisions at Tallgrass Sudbury, was reached by consensus among students.
“This protest is particularly important to our students, because some of them transferred to our school because they were either bullied or just felt like their voices weren’t being heard at public/conventional schools,” said Helen Tornquist, a staff member, in an email prior to the walkout.