High school students across Illinois will join a national walkout at 10 a.m. Wednesday to mark the one month anniversary of the fatal school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
In the weeks since the massacre that left 17 dead, the teen survivors at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have become vocal advocates for gun reform, spurring a nationwide #NeverAgain movement to fight for policies that would prevent future mass shootings. In Illinois, students from across the city, suburbs and state have joined the far-reaching movement to end gun violence with a gusto some school administrators say they haven’t seen in decades.
As students organize mass walkouts, educators have been left to strike a delicate balance between encouraging young people’s civic engagement and the need to keep them safe.
While schools have the right to discipline students for not being present in class, many school officials across the city and suburbs have worked with student organizers to plan walkouts that are safe, meaningful and nonpolitical. Local student leaders, who acknowledge that the gun debate is complex, hope Wednesday’s walkouts will show that they are determined to be a part of an ongoing discussion.
While most schools in the area have been supportive of the student-led walkouts, some school districts worked with student leaders to plan alternative gatherings, including meetings with local legislators or indoor rallies. Teachers and staff at schools where walkouts are planned will continue instruction for students who disagree with or don’t want to join the walkouts.
But at dozens of schools across the Chicago area, students who are leading and participating in Wednesday’s walkouts — and the larger fight to end gun violence — are determined to make their voices heard.
Damayanti Wallace, 17, junior at Chicago High School for the Arts
Damayanti Wallace considers herself lucky that she’s never had a friend or family member killed by gun violence. But that doesn’t mean she has never felt its aftermath.
“It feels very close, mainly because there are people who are going through it who could be in your class or who could be in your school,” said Wallace, who lives in the Woodlawn neighborhood. “You’re talking about it in class, or you’re talking about it in the hallway, or somebody’s, like, crying in the hallway because something happened last night.”
To cope with the grief, confusion and anger that come with growing up around violence, Wallace turns to poetry. In notebooks, at gatherings at Project Orange Tree, a nonprofit that educates youth about violence, and in front of crowds at the Young Chicago Authors, Wallace writes and recites verses to help her and her peers process what it feels like to be afraid to walk to school.
“Sometimes you’re just walking down the street and you’re like la-dee-da, it’s nothing. Then there are other days when you’re, like, hyperaware, or something doesn’t feel right,” Wallace said.
Wallace helped to organize a 17-minute walkout at her high school as another way to help herself and her friends speak out about what they have experienced. For weeks, she and her classmates have collected names of people they know who have died as a result of gun violence. They’ve also partnered with a school in Baltimore — another city plagued by gun violence — to get the names of students there who have been fatally shot. For the first 10 minutes of their walkout on Wednesday, they will read the names of the Chicago and Baltimore victims, as Baltimore students do the same. For the next five minutes, they will list demands for change. In the 16th minute, they will remember Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old killed in 2014 by a Chicago police officer. In the final minute, they will remember the victims of Parkland, Wallace said.
She hopes that by walking out, the public will see that she and her peers are trying their best to make a difference, she said.
“A lot of people have this critique of Chicago that we’re just sitting in it and not doing anything about it,” Wallace said. “I hope people now understand that this is a city that’s going through something and wants to change something.”
Maddy Small, 17, junior at York Community High School in Elmhurst
Maddy Small was on a bus riding home from school when she first read about the Parkland shooting on her phone. As she learned the details about Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, she was struck by how much the community sounded like her own suburb.
“It just really hit me that it’s so similar to my own situation,” Small said. “It just made me kind of take a step back and made me realize that really no one is really safe.”
Two hours later, Small was on her laptop looking up her local legislators’ websites. She emailed each lawmaker to say she was angry that a school shooting had happened again, and that she felt that the country needed to take action, she recalled.
Small’s instinct to contact her legislators comes from growing up in a politically active household. When she was 15, her mother took her to Chicago to attend President Barrack Obama’s farewell address. Small and her mom, who are members of a group called Progressives for Change, also attended the Women’s March in Chicago last year.
“It was super empowering,” Small said. “I’d never been to a protest before that, and that really threw me into the deep end because there were so many people and it was so cool to be surrounded by so many people that were like-minded.”
When Empower, an extracurricicular club at her high school that promotes gender equality and other human rights issues, met a few days after the Parkland shooting, Small was among several students determined to join the national movement for gun reform. In the weeks that followed, the students hosted a letter-writing campaign to send more than 100 letters to local legislators and also notes of support to students in Parkland.
Small, whose dream is to become a U.S. senator, said she can’t wait to be part of the walkout, for which students have made posters with slogans including “Enough is Enough,” “How Many More?” and “It Could Have Been Us.” Several students, who were selected by their peers, will speak about addressing policy change.
“I really hope that these movements among students show how that we’re not going to stop,” she said. “We really want to see change in the legislature come out of this.”
Samantha Schmitz, 18, senior at Barrington High School
After graduation, Samantha Schmitz will be heading to Harvard University. But for now, she’s proud to be on a committee of students at her high school organizing participation in the national walkout.