Students across suburbs to protest gun violence; schools' responses vary
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Fed up with campus violence, high school students across the suburbs will join a national walkout Wednesday to protest what they call congressional inaction on gun control.
Although mass shootings at U.S. schools aren't a new phenomenon, the tipping point for these young activists was the Feb. 14 shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 teens and staffers dead.
"I'm tired of turning on the news ... and then seeing that there was another mass shooting somewhere," said Libertyville High School sophomore Nathan Schleiden, who's helping to organize the protest at his school. "I strongly believe that the politicians who are supposed to be representing us in Congress and the Senate need to know that we, the future of America, would like to see change."
The walkouts have been well-planned and heavily promoted through social media, which has given school administrators time to develop response plans.
Some see the walkouts as safety risks and are threatening disciplinary action against teens who participate. Others view the protests as real-life civics lessons and have promised peaceful protesters won't be punished.
"We don't see a reason to discipline students for engaging in a learning activity," Mundelein High School spokesman Ron Girard said.
The walkouts have been orchestrated by the Women's March's Youth EMPOWER group and scheduled to occur one month after the tragedy in Florida. It is expected to be more widespread than walkouts that occurred Feb. 21, when students from Schaumburg, Elk Grove and Wheaton North high schools were among those who demonstrated.
At 10 a.m. Wednesday, students are set to leave classrooms for 17 minutes, in honor of the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida,
Some teens have additional activities planned. For example, students at Libertyville High School will gather for some speeches and then stand silently for six minutes -- the estimated duration of the Parkland shooting spree.
Barrington High School students are set to march to a park for a gun-control rally.
Lake Park High School District 108 Superintendent Lynn Panega said educators cannot condone or encourage participation in the walkouts. But they are ready for them in the Roselle-based district.
Students who protest at either Lake Park campus will be supervised and directed to safe locations, Panega said in an email to parents. Additionally, staff members and police will monitor any protests and prevent entry to the campuses during the demonstrations.
Lake Park students who protest will not be disciplined as long as they remain on campus and maintain appropriate conduct, she said.
Administrators at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire are taking a more cooperative approach by working with walkout organizers to ensure an orderly exit that causes the least disruption for students who aren't participating. Protesters won't be disciplined if they return to classes.
"While walking out of class normally would be cause for disciplinary action, we view this situation as different in light of the Florida shooting and its aftermath," Stevenson spokesman Jim Conrey said.
Mundelein High School officials are supporting the students' right to demonstrate, too. Rather than punishing students who protest peacefully, educators are encouraging teens to reflect on reasons behind the walkout after the demonstration, Girard said.
Mundelein High protest organizer Ricky Rodriguez is pleased educators have embraced the event as a teachable moment.
"(I) am very grateful to be able to be in an environment where student's right to assemble is respected," said Rodriguez, a senior and student body president.
Administrators at some other school districts aren't as open to the protests.
Officials with Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300 are actively discouraging student protests at Dundee-Crown, Hampshire and Jacobs high schools, because of safety concerns. Even so, walkouts will be permitted, but only inside the buildings and with prior administrative approval.
Teens who leave the school buildings will face detentions or suspensions.
"(We) will not support an activity that takes our students outside of the building," Superintendent Fred Heid said in an email to parents. "Any subsequent violations will be dealt with swiftly."
District 300 officials are recommending students write to lawmakers or write letters of support for the Parkland victims instead of protesting, among other possible actions.
Batavia High School students who leave class in protest may face consequences similar to those that result from unexcused absences, officials said. Spokeswoman Sue Gillerlain declined to elaborate.
Batavia High staffers have offered to help students express their opinions in other ways, such as developing an action plan with administrators and helping them write letters to legislators during lunch periods March 14.
"There are ways to advocate for their position that don't involve leaving campus," Gillerlain said.
Wauconda High School students and faculty met after the Parkland shooting to develop a way to show support for Stoneman Douglas students while limiting disruption.
They came up with an event called #Chain4Change. All students will come together March 14 and build a giant paper chain containing messages about societal change they'd like to see and the steps they can take to promote that change, Principal Daniel Klett said in a letter to parents.
A balloon launch and a 17-second period of silence are planned, too.
Wauconda students participating in any other demonstration could face disciplinary action or other administrative interventions, officials said.
Additional nationwide protests are scheduled for March 24 and April 20.
• Daily Herald staff writers Madhu Krishnamurthy, Christopher Placek and Susan Sarkauskas contributed to this report.