'We are young, and we are strong': Suburban teens join walkout against gun violence
In a remarkable show of unity, thousands of students at high schools across the Chicago area walked out of their classes Wednesday morning to join a nationwide youth protest against gun violence.
Most of the demonstrations began about 10 a.m. They were to last at least 17 minutes, one minute for each of the students and staffers killed one month ago at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
A common theme was honoring those victims and calling for action to ensure mass shootings at schools never happen again. Many of the demonstrations resembled 1960s-era rallies, with protest signs and student speakers using bullhorns to deliver emotional messages.
At some suburban high schools -- including Libertyville, Mundelein and Lake Park -- administrators supported students' rights to protest and worked to ensure safe, peaceful demonstrations. At others -- including Dundee-Crown, Hampshire and Wauconda high schools -- administrators cited safety concerns in holding indoor events and threatened disciplinary action against any teens who walked out of class or left the building.
Walkouts also took place at some junior high schools, including Robert Frost in Schaumburg.
The student walkout was part rally, part fundraiser -- and it was one of at least five walkouts in the Naperville area.
Organizing students, who estimated 300 of their peers from the school of 3,700 joined the protest, started with speeches and statistics about gun violence, then turned it over to an open mic.
They sold wristbands and T-shirts, too, both in orange -- the color hunters wear to avoid being shot -- and both to raise money for the #NeverAgain campaign against gun violence.
Senior Ariel Zavala estimated students raised nearly $500 from T-shirts, with the slogan "#EnoughisEnough," and $200 from wristbands saying, "We are students. We are victims. We are change."
Senior Kiernan Kelly explained why she walked out, and it has to do with her past. Kelly said she was a middle-schooler in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, in late 2012 when a shooter killed 20 children and six adults at the elementary school there.
"I've seen what this tragedy can do to a community," Kelly said, "and I never want it to happen again."
-- Marie Wilson
At least a couple hundred students representing both sides of the gun control debate walked off campus for a rally in a downtown park.
Students gathered for 17 minutes on the football stadium field in memory of peers killed in Florida. While many stayed on campus, other students walked to Memorial Park.
Chants of "enough is enough" from students favoring stricter guns laws were met by others shouting "arm our teachers."
Junior Peter Schnaubelt, wearing a red "Make America Great Again" hat and holding a U.S. flag and a "More Armed Security = Safer Schools" sign, said he was representing students whose opinions on guns are not commonly heard.
"I guess our big thing is teachers that already have a concealed-carry permit should be able to carry at school," Schnaubelt said.
Senior Syd Bakal called for gun control and an end to bump stocks and assault-style weapon sales as she used a bullhorn to speak to the 200 or so students and others in the park.
"Thank you for all joining me on this journey and the struggle for a better, safer country and school environment to call home," she said, drawing cheers.
Barrington Area Unit District 220 officials said students who left campus will be marked absent for missed classes. They said the students won't face disciplinary action.
The village of Barrington estimates 1,000 students participated in the campus walkout. Barrington High has about 3,000 students.
-- Bob Susnjara
Senior Promise Ogunleye told hundreds of students gathered to show solidarity with the Parkland, Florida, shooting victims and their families that "Columbine should have been enough."
About 6,000 Elgin Area School District U-46 students walked out of class Wednesday and wore orange ribbons symbolizing the national protest against school shootings.
At South Elgin High School, some students spoke emotionally about how the tragedy affected them, and many shed tears when the names of the 17 Parkland victims were read out aloud.
"Because we are tired of waiting to see who will be next, we say enough," Ogunleye said. She urged students old enough to vote to make their voices heard at the ballot box next week.
The Parkland victims bore special significance to 17-year-old junior Alexandra Pizano.
"I was in elementary school when Sandy Hook happened," she said, referring to the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 children and six school employees were killed. "I remember thinking to myself this can't happen again. I'm here so we won't be next. So no one will have to be next."
U-46 CEO Tony Sanders attended the protest at South Elgin to "supervise" along with school employees.
"What I love about this is the students are talking about policy, not people and politics," Sanders said. "Every voice will be heard. From a school safety perspective, if the 2,700 students in this school want to walk out, there's no way we can stop them. It's better to work with the students and make it a learning experience. That's why we are allowing this."
-- Madhu Krishnamurthy
About 500 students -- roughly a quarter of the student population -- walked out of their classes and quietly gathered on the football field to protest school violence and to remember the victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas assault.
"We are MSD strong," Libertyville junior and protest co-organizer Olivia Cherry said in reference to the hashtag slogan that developed after the Feb. 14 shootings.
After some initial remarks from Cherry, the students linked arms and stood silent on the field for six minutes -- the estimated duration of the attack. They also released 17 orange balloons into the sky.
Afterward, Cherry recited the first names and ages of the Stoneman Douglas victims before turning the microphone over to other student speakers.
"Please don't forget those names," Cherry said.
Many Libertyville High staffers, including Principal Tom Koulentes, observed the rally from a distance. Some community members did, too, watching from the other side of a fence near the field because the campus was closed to visitors as a safety precaution during the protest.
-- Russell Lissau
Roughly 1,000 students marched out of class and silently lined the football field for an emotional ceremony, where senior Angelique Rosales recited the names of the 17 students and adults killed in the Parkland shooting while classmates released orange balloons in honor of each victim.
"These kids don't have a chance to grow up and be good people, but you do," Rosales told the crowd, representing about 45 percent of the study body. "You all have a chance to say something, do something, change something, but it's up to you. They never had the chance. Be that chance for them. Spread kindness and spread love to everyone that touches your life."
Rosales channeled her grief into a poem she wrote and urged peers not to "cower in fear."
"We are young, and we are strong. We should know right from wrong," she said. "Glenbard North, enough is enough."
A smaller of crowd of roughly 100 students proceeded to march to Carol Stream's Town Center while other teens returned to class. The gathering, more boisterous than the on-campus ceremony, waved signs reading, "Our Lives are Not Worth Your Guns" and "Hey NRA! What's more important? Us? Or your guns?"
Students said school administrators would mark them truant for each period they missed while demonstrating off-campus. By 11:30 a.m., the group headed back to the school.
Pooja Chafekar, a senior from Glendale Heights, was uplifted by the "united front" and vowed to join the Chicago March for Our Lives on March 24.
"From here, we can keep progressing and talking to more people, people in government, our representatives to spread our word and get more gun control to create a safer environment for us at home, school, wherever we are in our community," she said.
-- Katlyn Smith
A small group of theater and music students took charge of organizing the walkout onto the school football field where about 500 of the school's 2,500 students participated.
Senior Anisha Narain said she now divides all her memories between the categories of before Parkland and after.
"On that Wednesday, it felt like there was more fear in our school," she said.
Her co-organizers, Ailey Yamamoto and Bianca Saputra, recalled the panic that occurred not long ago during a power surge in the school. Students and even some staffers jumped to the conclusion it was caused by an active shooter situation, and that should not be the case for people simply attending school, they said.
The group spent weeks preparing for Wednesday's walkout, including selling posters and T-shirts with proceeds donated to the Sandy Hook Promise nonprofit organization aimed at preventing gun-related tragedies.
"At it's core it's preventable, and that's why we're so mad," Narain said.
-- Eric Peterson
The Facebook event set up for Mundelein High School drew 150 responses, but about double that number of students spilled onto the grassy area outside the main entrance where there was a palpable buzz.
Several carried signs that read "Protect Kids Not Guns" and "Common Sense." A few signs asked Gov. Bruce Rauner if he was listening and provided his phone number.
"It doesn't matter how many people are out here -- there are people who care," sophomore Chris Spencer said.
"I think it's really moving," she said of the gathering. Spencer said she doesn't think guns should be banned but wants more regulation.
Does she feel safe at school?
"There are times I don't," she said. "All the shootings, sometimes I think it's only a matter of time until Mundelein is next."
Junior Samantha Hernandez carried a "#Never Again" sign. She said her parents supported her participation and advised her to stand up for what she thought was right.
With about two minutes left in the vigil, the voice of student body President Ricky Rodriguez boomed over the crowd. Before calling for a moment of silence, he said it is important for politicians to listen and urged those old enough to register to vote.
"It just sends a message as a whole this is important to us," he said.
-- Mick Zawislak
From observing moments of silence to the tone of a meditation chime to creating origami doves as symbols of hope and peace, some suburban schools quietly marked their national protest against gun violence with faculty members using it as a teaching moment.
Students in a seventh-grade English classroom at Abbott Middle School in Elgin wrote letters about what they would ask government officials to do to prevent school shootings and improve safety. They also made 1,000 paper doves that will be sent to Parkland, Florida families with messages of peace.
Kimball Middle School in Elgin held an assembly for students to talk about free speech, while Elgin High School students launched an effort promoting 17 acts of kindness to honor Parkland victims.
At Dundee-Crown High School in Carpentersville, students staged a walk-in and stood in hallways with arms linked together, student Alyssa Realzola wrote on Facebook.
"During the moments of silence, many said it was deafening because they would have never thought that D-C could be that quiet during a school day," she wrote. "And if students chose not to participate, then they were able to sit in the main gym, but I know that they still continued to talk of the many ways that us, as students, could help and stop the violence in our schools."
-- Madhu Krishnamurthy