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