Safer, but still scared: How suburban students feel one year after Parkland shooting

  • Students from South Elgin High School were among those who participated last March 14 in a nationwide student walkout for gun control.

    Students from South Elgin High School were among those who participated last March 14 in a nationwide student walkout for gun control. Rick West | Staff Photographer, March 2018

  • Downers Grove North High School graduate Emily Gornik, third from left, has gotten involved against gun violence in Chicago after helping host the Road to Change tour's stop last June in Naperville as student-activists from Parkland, Florida, began to campaign across the nation.

      Downers Grove North High School graduate Emily Gornik, third from left, has gotten involved against gun violence in Chicago after helping host the Road to Change tour's stop last June in Naperville as student-activists from Parkland, Florida, began to campaign across the nation. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer June 2018

  • Barrington High School students were among those who walked out of classes last March 14 as part of a national protest against gun violence.

      Barrington High School students were among those who walked out of classes last March 14 as part of a national protest against gun violence. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer, March 2018

  • South Elgin High School students joined a nationwide walkout last March 14 to protest congressional inaction on gun control in response to the Feb. 14 shooting that left 17 people dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

    South Elgin High School students joined a nationwide walkout last March 14 to protest congressional inaction on gun control in response to the Feb. 14 shooting that left 17 people dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Rick West | Staff Photographer, March 2018

  • The reaction to the Parkland, Florida, shootings included students advocating for armed security in schools, such as these Barrington High School students heading to Memorial Park the same day others were marching against gun violence last March. These students argued that personnel carrying guns in schools can respond to armed attackers.

      The reaction to the Parkland, Florida, shootings included students advocating for armed security in schools, such as these Barrington High School students heading to Memorial Park the same day others were marching against gun violence last March. These students argued that personnel carrying guns in schools can respond to armed attackers. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer, March 2018

 
 
Updated 2/14/2019 12:11 PM
Editor's note: This story has been changed to correct a mistake in the name of the Parkland, Florida high school. The correct name is Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The year since the shooting deaths of 17 students and faculty at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, has been filled with walkouts, town halls and discussions of gun controls.

It has been filled with action in many places -- including Illinois -- as 26 states and Washington, D.C., enacted new gun-related laws, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

And it has been marked by changes in the perspectives of suburban students who were moved to activism by a group of crusading Parkland survivors and their March for Our Lives movement.

Walkouts here took place at dozens of schools last Feb. 21, March 14 and April 19, joining similar efforts nationwide.

In Naperville, students joined adult activists for a June 2 protest on what the city proclaimed as National Gun Violence Awareness Day. That month, several Downers Grove North High School students acted as hosts when the Parkland students' Road to Change tour visited Naperville for a town hall. Participants say they think these actions were worthwhile.

Illinois' new gun control laws have funded an urban gun violence reduction program, allowed a petition process that could temporarily remove a person's access to firearms, and lengthened the waiting period to buy long guns to three days, according to the Giffords Law Center.

Student activists say they are pleased with these changes, with increased security and trainings at their schools, and with the attention their voices have received. But they also continue to advocate for safety, and in some cases, they continue to worry whether they are truly safe each day they gather for class.

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Here are four of these students' stories as they reflect on the anniversary of the Parkland shooting.

Starting a movement

Olivia Cherry helped organize the March 2018 student walkout at Libertyville High School. Now a senior, she believes the walkouts and protests made a difference.

Libertyville High School student Olivia Cherry says she still fears violence at school a year after a mass shooting killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Davis High School in Parkland, Florida.
Libertyville High School student Olivia Cherry says she still fears violence at school a year after a mass shooting killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Davis High School in Parkland, Florida.

"It started a movement," Cherry said. "We showed that at a young age, we want to be the generation that finally changes the narrative of gun violence in schools, and everywhere across America."

Cherry said she's inspired by the shooting survivors and Parkland-area residents who have spoken out.

"I still follow many of their biggest advocates on social media to see all of the amazing things that they are doing," she said. "They were just normal high schoolers, my age, but that didn't stop them from turning something so horrific into an opportunity to spark conversation and change."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Still, time hasn't lessened Cherry's fears.

"In every classroom I am in, I have mentally planned out the exact corner of the room I want to run to, to give myself the best chance of survival," she said. "Sitting in the cafeteria still gives me anxiety just thinking about how easy it would be for something terrible to happen, and how hard it would be to hide."

Voting for change

Promise Ogunleye was among the organizers of a walkout last March involving about 6,000 Elgin Area School District U-46 students showing solidarity with Parkland shooting victims and their families.

South Elgin High School graduate Promise Ogunleye, 18: an Elgin native now studying at UCLA, encouraged peers to vote to help enact change on gun safety. "It hasn't gotten significantly better," she said of school safety since the Parkland shooting. "The only difference now it that we are talking about it more."
South Elgin High School graduate Promise Ogunleye, 18: an Elgin native now studying at UCLA, encouraged peers to vote to help enact change on gun safety. "It hasn't gotten significantly better," she said of school safety since the Parkland shooting. "The only difference now it that we are talking about it more." - Courtesy of Promise Ogunleye

Then a South Elgin High School senior, Ogunleye urged students to make their voices heard at the ballot box, following the lead of Parkland survivors who she said "did not want people to forget about it."

"We are seeing a lot more people emphasizing voting ... and more concerned about those who are representing them," said Ogunleye, 18, an Elgin native now studying human biology and society with emphasis on public health and medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Ogunleye said she's noticed more peers getting involved in the gun-control issue, yet not enough progress.

"It hasn't gotten significantly better," she said. "The only difference now it that we are talking about it more."

That leaves her still fearful for her younger siblings attending U-46 middle and elementary schools.

"They definitely have it in the back of their mind. ... There is always that sense of urgency," she said. "I still think it's a really big issue. I feel like we are a lot more desensitized by it. It's become this odd part of our culture. Even young kids know what to do, know how to react when something like that is happening."

'Kids still scared'

Downers Grove North graduate Emily Gornik met several Parkland survivors when she was a student host of their Road to Change tour last June in Naperville.

But the survivors she was most intrigued to meet came from closer to home: Chicago.

Downers Grove North High School graduate Emily Gornik said she has gotten involved with gun violence prevention marches and efforts in Chicago since the Parkland shooting a year ago.
Downers Grove North High School graduate Emily Gornik said she has gotten involved with gun violence prevention marches and efforts in Chicago since the Parkland shooting a year ago. - Courtesy of Emily Gornik

In the year since the Parkland shooting, Gornik said, she has marched with and raised money for Chicago students who have opened her eyes to the daily dangers they face.

"It is really heartbreaking to see that kids are still scared to go to school," said Gornik, a freshman studying secondary education and political science at the University of Louisville. "I would like to see more change in Chicago, and I would like to see more action taken."

Gornik, 18, said she looks forward to this summer, when she plans to help host her second donation drive to benefit Chicago students threatened by gun violence.

"I think it's pretty amazing that the whole country, and especially students, have really taken a step further, beyond just mass shootings, and have gone into those areas where gun violence happens every single day," she said. "A year after, the activism hasn't stopped -- it's actually gotten stronger. So that's something I'm really grateful for."

'Feel more secure'

Aidan Wysocki was one of five Schaumburg High School students who organized a walkout that an estimated 1,200 classmates joined one week after the Parkland shooting last year.

Now 16 and a junior, Wysocki said students' fears have somewhat diminished, thanks in large part to the effects of student walkouts.

Aidan Wysocki helped organize a student walkout at Schaumburg High School a week after the Parkland shooting last year, and he says the effort helped contribute to a nationwide student call for change.
Aidan Wysocki helped organize a student walkout at Schaumburg High School a week after the Parkland shooting last year, and he says the effort helped contribute to a nationwide student call for change. - Courtesy of Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211

Within Schaumburg High itself, there's a greater feeling of comfort after the shooter-response training teachers received last summer, he said. And on a higher level, he sees legislation enacted to ban bump stocks as a direct result of student efforts.

"Hopefully, over time, we'll see more and more legislation and an end to gun violence, especially in schools," Wysocki said.

Though it's been 11 months since the large walkout last March, the topic of gun violence has hardly disappeared from the halls of Schaumburg High.

"People still talk about it quite often," Wysocki said, "but they feel more secure than they did."

• Daily Herald staff writers Russell Lissau, Madhu Krishnamurthy and Eric Peterson contributed to this report.

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