Hundreds of Bloomington-Normal students walked out of their classrooms Wednesday to demand that lawmakers act to stop gun violence in schools.
At Normal Community High School, at least 300 students carried signs and chanted during a 17-minute demonstration at 10 a.m., one of more than 3,000 similar walkouts across the country Wednesday. Students are advocating stricter gun regulation including bans on assault weapons and expanded background checks, sparked by the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
NCHS has its own history with gun violence. In 2012, a teacher saved the day after a student fired a handgun in a classroom. That scare loomed over Wednesday’s demonstration, with junior Tristan Bixby telling the crowd that her brother was in that classroom—and she almost lost him.
“I can’t imagine my life without him, and it terrifies me to think that thought could’ve become a reality in my own community,” Bixby said. “I’m not here to rant or vent. I’m here to challenge to our leaders to change something, to do something, to shamelessly stand up for what is right and make a change.”
Around 200 students participated in a similar demonstration at Normal West high school. Other demonstrations happened at Bloomington High School, and Bloomington, Kingsley, Chiddix junior highs.
Over the past few weeks, students and parents expressed concern that participating in the national school walkout may lead to disciplinary action. But administrators said peaceful protestors would not face discipline, and colleges like Illinois State University said participation would not affect the admissions process.
Unit 5 appeared to embrace the demonstrations. Superintendent Mark Daniel was on hand at NCHS.
“It’s very powerful,” Daniel said. “These are students who are generating these ideas and putting plans into action. I’m very hopeful we can have some student leaders coming to us not just at the building level, but at the district level, to begin additional dialogue about what it means to have safe schools.”
The NCHS walkout was organized by eight students with the Not In Our School organization. One of those organizers, junior Kavya Sudhir, said they were encouraged by the successful lobbying by the Parkland survivors. After that shooting, Florida raised the legal age for gun purchases to 21, instituted a waiting period of three days, and allowed for the arming of school personnel who are not full-time teachers.
“I think more change needs to be done,” said Sudhir. “And that can only be done by students expressing their opinions.”
Illinois lawmakers are now considering various gun-control bills in Springfield, including raising the minimum age for gun purchases and an outright ban on bump stocks.
“My question for our government is, when is enough enough?” said Faithe Wenger, an NCHS senior who spoke at the walkout. “This isn’t a Second Amendment argument. It’s an argument about life.”
At Normal West, around 350 students participated, said organizer Amara Sheppard. They passed out tri-fold materials that commemorated the Florida victims and educated students about gun control, as well as acknowledged a moment of silence, she said.
“We want to get this message out to our representatives and officials in the state, and hopefully they can take it Washington, and we can make guns harder to access and therefore our school environment safer,” said Sheppard, a sophomore at Normal West.
Sheppard praised school administrators for telling students in advance they would not be disciplined if they chose to participate.
“The school district handled it very well,” said Sheppard.
Sheppard will be one of the speakers at a communitywide rally March 24 in downtown Bloomington, called March for our Lives. A pro-gun and pro-Second Amendment rally was held downtown earlier this month.
Meanwhile, there was some movement Wednesday on gun and school safety measures in both Springfield and Washington.
The Illinois Senate adopted a ban on bump stocks, an age limit to own assault-style weapons, and an extended waiting period for delivery of high-capacity weapons.
And the U.S. House passed a bill authorizing $500 million over 10 years for grants to improve training and coordination between schools and local law enforcement and help identify signs of potential violence before they occur.
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