Student Walk Outs Cause Confusion At Area Schools

Mar 13, 2018

Wednesday, some students from Springfield-area schools will leave class and stand in a common area on school grounds for 17 minutes - one minute to honor each of the lives lost in the mass shooting at a Parkland, Florida high school. It's part of a national push led by young people for stricter gun laws.

Local schools have given a variety of responses to the plans. Student organizers worked with each other and some administrators to agree ahead of time on what might take place that would promote freedom of speech (as the ACLU has urged schools to foster) while also not disrupting the school day. 

Students who spoke with NPR Illinois generally agreed they did not want to face harsh penalties, like missing prom or graduation, and were willing to work with school officials on how to proceed. 

But Rochester student Colton Sherell says there has been confusion as to what penalties students he might face at his school. 

"I've spoken with some teachers, and there's stuff going around, buzzing," said Sherell. "We don't know what the consequences will be, which is what keeps a lot of students in their seat. They don't know what's going to happen to them, which unfortunately - fear is a useful tactic." 

A letter sent to parents in late February by Superintendent Tom Bertrand read, "Given heightened concerns about the safety of our students the district will not sanction such protests. " 

Laura Coffey has a daughter who attends Rochester High. She was disheartened to hear that students had been talked to by the principal in a way her daughter felt was dismissive. Coffey says her daughter had the impression she would be punished for participating. She says the talk in question "made the kids feel worse instead of better." 

In an email to parents sent late Tuesday afternoon and obtained by NPR Illinois, Ashbaugh confirmed students who left class would earn an unexcused absence. He also offered to meet with students who wanted to "advocate for causes that are important to them" while at school. Ashbaugh told NPR Illinois in a separate emailed statement that students who do leave class will have a designated "safe" area to go.

In a statement to NPR Illinois, Springfield's District 186 said it would work with students to agree on a way for them to demonstrate without disrupting others. A spokesperson for Glenwood High School told NPR Illinois that students can remain in class and stand for 17 minutes. Students can also meet in a common area, but, if they want to avoid any penalties, must remain on school property, return to the classrooms in a reasonable timeframe and make up any missed work.

Claire Farnsworth is a senior at Glenwood High School. Farnsworth helped lead a group of area students to plan the walk outs, and is also planning a local  "March for Our Lives" event to take place outside the Illinois capitol on March 24. The national efforts have been headed by a coalition of activist groups, including Youth EMPOWER, the youth segment of the Women's March organizers, and Everytown for Gun Safety.

Farnsworth says she wants more attention on the issue of gun violence, and now is the time. "I just hate that the gun culture in America that has been brewing slowly over the past however many decades has come to a head more and more recently, and no one's doing anything about it," she said.