DECATUR — From Maine to Hawaii, thousands of students planned to stage walkouts Wednesday to protest gun violence, one month after the deadly shooting inside a high school in Parkland, Florida, but most Central Illinois school officials aren’t anticipating much participation locally.
National organizers say nearly 3,000 walkouts are set in the biggest demonstration yet of the student activism that has emerged following the massacre of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida.
Decatur schools are among several that are planning activities for students to be part of Student Walkout Day without a walkout.
“Our high schools are opting to do something inside in lieu of a student walkout,” said Maria Robertson, spokeswoman for Decatur School District. “The district recognizes the importance of student voice and are using the opportunity as a teaching moment as well.”
Elementary students in Decatur are taking the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC test, this week, Robertson said, and it has been suggested they can participate in other age-appropriate ways.
“Smile at 17 people that they don’t know, offer kindness to 17 people you usually don’t talk to, make of list of 17 reasons why treating people with compassion and kindness will improve student success, those sorts of things,” Robertson said.
Students from the elementary to college level are taking up the call in a variety of ways. Some planned roadside rallies to honor shooting victims and protest violence. Others were to hold demonstrations in school gyms or on football fields. In Massachusetts and Ohio, students said they'll head to the statehouse to lobby for new gun regulations.
The coordinated walkout was organized by Empower, the youth wing of the Women's March, which brought thousands to Washington, D.C., last year. The group urged students to leave class at 10 a.m. local time for 17 minutes — one minute for each victim in the Florida shooting.
Although the group wanted students to shape protests on their own, it also offered them a list of demands for lawmakers, including a ban on assault weapons and mandatory background checks for all gun sales.
"Our elected officials must do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to this violence," the group said on its website.
Mount Zion Superintendent Travis Roundcount said he hopes students will participate in planned activities rather than leave school.
“I have not had any parents call my office to inquire about the walkout procedures or issues,” Roundcount said. “I also don't know if any students will walk out without parent or school permission. I would always hope that students, for safety reasons, remain at the school during any regular school day.
“We have some educational opportunities planned for Wednesday, while keeping students in a safe learning environment.”
Meridian schools are preparing to take PARCC tests, said Superintendent Dan Brue, and no activities are planned for National School Walkout Day. If students do walk out, the consequences would be the same as any unexcused absence and would depend on how many unexcused absences students already have. He said he is not aware of any students who plan to participate.
“I met last week with a group of students, my Principals Student Committee, to discuss this and other issues,” said Sean German, principal of Argenta-Oreana High School. “At this point, I am not aware of any of our students who are planning to participate in the National Walkout on Wednesday,” said Sean German, principal of Argenta-Oreana High School.
Millikin University is on spring break this week, and no students are on campus, said spokesman Dane Lisser.
LSA High School students plan a prayer walk at 10:30 a.m. Thursday. They're making signs with the names of the 17 victims and will walk to the campus baseball field to pray.
National School Walkout Day is one of several protests planned for coming weeks. The March for Our Lives rally for school safety is expected to draw hundreds of thousands to the nation's capital on March 24, its organizers said. And another round of school walkouts is planned for April 20, the 19th-year anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado.
Meanwhile, free speech advocates geared up for a battle. The American Civil Liberties Union issued advice for students who walk out, saying schools can't legally punish them more harshly because of the political nature of their message. In Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Texas, some lawyers said they will provide free legal help to students who are punished.