Meet Some of the Illinois Students Behind Wednesday's School Walkouts for Gun Reform
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.
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.
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 Barack 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 extracurricular 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.
At first, the three seniors, two juniors and two sophomores who were motivated to stage a walkout in support of the students at Stoneman Douglas were nervous about how administrators would react to their idea. So they asked administrators for a meeting to ensure they’d support the event.
“A lot of the students that are going to be doing the walking out are also the students that are on the honor roll and worried about college, and wouldn’t want to get a detention,” Schmitz said. “Having clarification of what’s going to happen … and making sure everyone’s protected definitely helps people feel more confident that they can do this.”
Schmitz said she and her peers also worried about what people in the heavily Republican community would think of their plans. But she and other organizers say they have only received positive response. “It is honestly shocking to me how many people want to get involved,” Schmitz said. “We just hit like a turning point, saying we can’t put up with this any longer and we demand change.”
On Wednesday, students at Barrington High School plan to wear orange in protest of gun violence and meet outside their school near the flag pole. To abide by administrators’ guidelines, the students will not invite parents or community members to participate in the 17-minute event, which will include student speeches to honor the victims of the Parkland shooting.
But after the walkout, a smaller group plans to march to U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam’s, R-Wheaton, satellite office, where friends and family will join them. “Seeing all of the students that support the cause and are willing to take action is just going to be amazing — and hopefully really impactful,” Schmitz said.
Ben Russell, 17, senior at Naperville Central High School
Since he was in first grade, Ben Russell has participated in lockdown drills at school designed to prepare students and staff for a shooter or other intruder in the halls.
“The doors get locked, the blinds get shut, and we try to get to the side of the room away from the window,” Russell said. “And then you just sit down and wait.”
Eventually, Russell said, the principal comes and tells the students they did well and the drill is over. But he and his peers have always been skeptical about the strategy, and whether it would save their lives in a real-life attack.
“If you asked me, ‘Would this help stop a shooter?’, I would say, ‘No,’ ” he said.
So when Russell saw a movement on Twitter to hold a national walkout for students to speak out in favor of gun reform, he knew he wanted to be part of it. He started a Twitter handle for his own school and began planning an event for April 20 — the anniversary of the Columbine shooting — during which students would line the streets with signs in favor of gun control. He booked politicians and local gun reform activists to speak at the gathering. And he ordered hundreds of orange plastic bracelets to promote the event with the words “Join the Fight.”
It wasn’t the first time Russell became invested in a cause. He is the vocalist and guitarist in an alternative rock band called Ethel Shank, and he and his bandmates have played several concerts to raise money for everything from animal rights to local politicians up for election.
But this movement feels different, Russell said.
“It feels bigger and more in the moment,” said Russell, who has had to skip band practice and ask for fewer shifts at his part-time job to make time for planning. “I’m just kind of seizing that time right now.”
When schools across the country began planning walkouts for March 14, Russell and other students at Naperville Central planning their event worried there wouldn’t be enough time or energy for students to participate in two demonstrations. But as each day passed, it seemed he and his classmates were only becoming more interested in advocating for stricter gun laws.
Russell and his fellow planners decided to add a walkout on March 14 to their already scheduled gathering in April.
“The biggest thing is sending a message to Congress that says we might not be able to vote now, but this next generation of voters will vote you out because gun reform needs to happen,” he said.
Parker Kent, 17, junior at Collinsville High School
Just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis in downstate Collinsville, Ill., Parker Kent and his classmates also are joining the national walkout.
Kent didn’t hear about the Parkland shooting until a day or two after it happened. But when he learned the details, he and his peers were disgusted to hear that, yet again, innocent people were killed by someone with automatic weapon.
“We just want to come to school, further our education,” Kent said. “We don’t ever want to worry about these insane acts of violence.”
Some of Kent’s friends are licensed gun holders who hunt as a hobby. But Kent said those friends don’t take issue with the idea of banning assault weapons, a change that Kent supports.
“A lot of my friends realize that you’re not going to be completely stripped of all your weapons,” he said. “Nobody needs an assault weapon to go out and hunt.”
Kent and his fellow planners expect nearly half of the school’s more than 2,000 students to participate in the walkout Wednesday, when they will request silence in honor of the students who died in the Parkland shooting.
If nothing comes of this week’s walkouts, Kent and fellow organizers will plan more events to keep showing that they are serious about wanting change.
“Just because we’re students, that doesn’t mean we’re too young or don’t have enough power to make a difference,” he said.