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Springfield Area Students Plan Actions To Address Gun Violence

Rachel Otwell
some of the students who met to organize in a Springfield grocery store, from left: Aria Bender, Sumayya Hameed, Claire Farnsworth, Izzy Pruitt, Amelia Cox & Ashley Broemmer

Student activists from Parkland, Florida, have toured the country speaking out about gun violence after a gunman killed 17 people at their school in February. They recentlymade a stop in Chicago and their cause has inspired students all over the country, including in the Springfield area.

About 20 students from a variety of local schools gathered at a table in the community room of a grocery store Monday evening. They discussed plans for a walk out and rally. A few adults representing activist groups that have organized events, including the women's marches in Springfield, were on hand to help work out logistics, such as city permits.

Claire Farnsworth, an 18-year-old senior from Chatham, led the meeting. She got her introduction to activism after starting a petition about her school's dress code last year. She found its limit on attire for females sexist. She went on to form a feminist club, and now, she's also focused on addressing gun violence.

"Going anywhere honestly is a scary thing right now. For as long as I can remember, especially in high school, people have made school shooter jokes, which is kind of inappropriate, but that's just the culture in which we live. The fact that you can joke about that because that's so normal, it's appalling and just distasteful. It's just how we live. It's just our culture."

Farnsworth said she wants to get kids from all local schools at the table.

"There's a lot of differences, not only culturally but demographically, and we want to make sure that everyone's voices are being heard," she said. "If not everyone's involved, there's no point in it."

The ACLU's Illinois chapter recently encouraged schools to respect free speech rights. Across the nation a student walk-out is planned for March 14, with rallies and marches to happen on March 24th.

ACLU lawyer Rebecca Glenberg said schools should take advantage of letting students acquire hands-on experience when it comes to civic engagement, and teachers shouldn't shy away from discussion about the realities of current events. "Protection of minority viewpoints and listening to other viewpoints with an open mind are really important skills for a school to teach its students," said Glenberg.

A statement from Springfield's District 186 indicates it will respect students' rights to organize, and won't punish students for participating, as long as they come to an agreed-upon set of guidelines with the administration. The district emphasized the events don't reflect its endorsement of any specific cause.

"Our goal is to allow peaceful and safe participation and minimize disruption of the school day," the statement reads. "It is our responsibility during these times to keep students safe and be thoughtful and objective listeners."

The students at the meeting at the grocery store believe gun violence can be stemmed by adding regulations, but they're aware they don't represent all kids.

For Aria Bender, activism runs in the family - her mom helps lead a local Black Lives Matter group. Her school, Springfield High, has gone through numerous bomb threats in the past year or so. Bender said she wants to see more conversation and action around bullying because maybe that would mean fewer young people would ever lash out in violent ways in the first place. And she wants adults to take her and her peers seriously.

"I don't want people to get the wrong idea - I don't want people to think, 'Oh they're doing this to get out of class.' I want them to see we're doing this with a purpose, but I don't want adults to use this as a way to punish us," said Bender.

Mass shootings and gun violence are something these students have been aware of from a young age, having spent their formative years in a post-Columbine world.

Glenwood High School student Sumayya Hameed said her peers know their power and where it lies.  Her speech at the upcoming rally will "focus on the concept of voting. Get out there and vote for people who will support gun control and who won't take money from the NRA." She said she heard students talk about voting "all the time, because there's so many kids our age passionate, because going to school shouldn't be a scary thing."

Kelly Hurst is helping these teens organize. She spent over 20 years teaching and administrating for District 186 and later a private school. She said students' rights are already protected when it comes to speaking out. "Look at Supreme Court cases - Tinker v. Des Moines has already decided that students are allowed to voice their opinions in schools. I think that's really important. Right now, in gun culture what we like to talk (about) more than anything is the second amendment - but how about we go back to that first one, and our ability to say, 'I want to be safe in schools, and I want to be able to keep children safe in schools.'"

The Tinker v. Des Moines case happened during the Vietnam War, when some kids decided to wear black arm bands to protest it and were suspended as a result. Ultimately, the courts ruled in their favor, saying students in school retain their rights to freedom of speech. John Tinker was one of those students, and he visited Springfield for a lecture a few years ago. He says he wants the legacy of that court case to live on, and he thinks it should "establish that freedom of speech is crucial to a democratic society."

Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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