BLOOMINGTON — Students at several Central Illinois schools joined their peers across the nation Wednesday by walking out of their classrooms to send a message about gun violence.
The nation-wide walkout began at 10 a.m. and lasted for 17 minutes.
The event was organized to occur exactly one month after 17 students and faculty were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., by a former student wielding a semi-automatic rifle.
In wake of the massacre, students have risen to be some of the loudest activists for stricter gun control.
Hundreds of students at Normal Community High School, Normal West High School and Bloomington High School participated in the peaceful protest. Several schools in neighboring communities also joined.
At NCHS, nearly 400 students left their classrooms and crowded on the sidewalk behind the building. Their event was organized by the Not In Our School group, Social Studies Club and Peace and Justice Club.
Senior Faithe Wenger spoke to the crowd, reminding them of the 2012 shooting that happened in a classroom at NCHS. The shooter was a student. No one was injured and the building was evacuated.
“NCHS remembers. Our town remembers. When the practice tornado siren goes off the first Tuesday of every month, we shake,” said Wenger. “For the first 10 seconds our hearts drop to our feet. For that short period of time, we feel the fear that was present at Sandy Hook, Parkland, Las Vegas and Orlando. How can we make government feel that?”
Junior Tristan Bixby told the crowd how her brother was held hostage in the classroom at NCHS by the shooter six years ago.
“I consider myself lucky. I still get to see my brother every day. I get to be a part of his life. That is not always the case in this country. It terrifies me to think that thought could have been a reality within my own community,” said Bixby.
As for future change, Bixby said “start small.”
“Talk to leaders, send an email, sit down and have those difficult conversations. Find kids who don’t have anyone and be there for them,” said Bixby. “Before today we were just kids, but we are the future and we will be the change.”
As she encouraged her peers to vote and speak up, Wenger’s hand shook but her voice was strong.
“We still need stricter background checks, need to raise the age to 21 for all guns, not just rifles, we need to focus on mental illness and protecting student lives and all lives,” said Wenger. “This is just the beginning for us, the generation of change.”
The students ended the event by chanting “spread love, not hate, we just want to graduate."
For the final minute of the walkout, the crowd took a moment of silence to honor students killed by gun violence.
Nearly 300 students at Kingsley Junior High School also participated.
Before the walkout, Kingsley eighth-grader, Sam Gathright, said she planned to hold a sign and have conversation with her peers to understand their views on the issues.
She said she chose to join the national walkout because “our generation has some of the most lives lost due to school violence and suicide.
“I’m not so much thinking about me and my peers, but for every generation after me that will benefit from my actions,” she said.
Students at BHS participated in a different way, leaving their classrooms to line the halls and stay silent for 17 minutes.
"It was a somber mood," said Fiona Ward Shaw, junior. "There's a time and a place for sitting in remembrance but we have to take action through legislative changes."
Freshman Jaylyn Haynes said it is "inconsiderate" for older generations to not take the students seriously because of their age.
"You're never too young to learn and express an opinion. That's one of the reasons behind so many of these shootings; people feel like they have to go to horrible lengths to get attention because they feel their voices aren't being heard," said Haynes.
School officials in some parts of the country have told students they will be disciplined for participating in the walkout.
But superintendents at Bloomington District 87 and McLean County Unit 5 said students weren't disciplined for practicing free speech without seriously disrupting the school day.
Unit 5 Superintendent Mark Daniel observed the demonstration at NCHS and called it “powerful” and "student led."
Elsewhere in Central Illinois, some Decatur schools planned alternative activities for students. School officials said participating students would not be punished.
“The district recognizes the importance of student voice and are using the opportunity as a teaching moment as well,” said spokeswoman Maria Robertson.
At MacArthur High School, a 10 a.m. announcement was made throughout the building acknowledging the Parkland, Fla. shooting. The victims' names were read, followed by a moment of silence.
Shortly afterwards, students began filing out of the building.
Sophomore Navaeh Alaniz, 16, and her friends, Angelina Walker, 16, and Kailey Wallar, 15, went further than simply leaving the school. The three girls had their own mini march.
"We are trying to save the world one step at a time," Alaniz said.
Follow Julia Evelsizer on Twitter: @pg_evelsizer
Pantagraph News Service contributed to this report.
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!