At Craig High School, students waved signs, cried and embraced.
At Parker High School, students marched in silence.
At Milton High School, about 100 students left classes despite the threat of 30-minute detentions.
At Delavan-Darien High School, students chanted: “We are the future.”
Thousands of area high school students walked out of classes Wednesday morning in a nationwide effort to protest gun violence and remember the 17 victims killed in a Parkland, Florida, school shooting.
In a speech to her Craig classmates, walkout organizer Stephanie Wang said it’s important for students to be informed and form their own opinions rather than following the loudest voices online.
“Start your own discussions,” she said. “Argue your perspective, question the perspectives of others, but more importantly, actively listen to what each other has to say.”
Hundreds of Craig students spilled onto the sidewalk along South Randall Avenue at 10 a.m. for a 17-minute protest. Some held signs calling for gun control while others cried and embraced. One student held a sign saying guns aren’t the problem, but poor mental health is.
At Parker High School, about 1,000 students participated in a silent memorial to those killed.
Those who didn’t want to join gathered in other classrooms or auditoriums.
When students walked out of the building at 10 a.m., the only sound was the repeated click and gentle thump of four or five exit doors being pushed open at once.
There were no signs or other noise, just the sounds of feet on the sidewalk.
In an interview after the event, student organizers said they had learned about the march from one of their English teachers. After that, the students took over, working with their teachers and school administrators to set it up.
“The majority of ideas for the event came from students,” said senior Deanta Rush.
Many students were concerned that they were going to get in trouble or be marked truant if they walked out, said sophomore Jackie Schroeder.
By helping organize the march, administrators and teachers were able to use it as a “teachable moment,” said Patrick Gasper, Janesville School District communication specialist.
At Milton High School, about 100 students anticipated getting 30-minute detentions for leaving class. Some students reportedly were going to use their detention time to call their legislators.
Principal Jeremy Bilhorn said the students who participated would be given 30-minute detentions under the school’s policy for kids who leave class.
More than 100 Milton High School students gathered near the football stadium and sat solemnly for 17 minutes. No one spoke until 10:17 a.m., when a student read the names of the 17 victims in the Parkland shooting.
Eli Richmond spoke briefly, saying he feared for the safety of his first-grade sister.
“We stand defiant against a society that has accepted the massacres and slaughters as inevitable,” Richmond said. “We stand against the generations that have come before us, the generations that have refused to solve this problem.”
A handful of people from older generations stood on the periphery of the demonstration to show support.
Peggy Taylor no longer has kids at Milton, but she held a sign that read “Proud of student activists.” Kids can be “extremely effective” in changing policy because they are the voters of the future, she said.
Heather Mirza has three kids in the district, including one at the high school. She brought a pink sign that read “Honk for gun law reform,” and a smattering of car horns could be heard.
‘A human right’
In her address at Craig High School, Wang said an average of 136 children and teenagers are shot every week. Every year, more than 900 children younger than 12 are shot, and 22 percent of them die, she said.
Wang demanded students’ voices be heard and their lives protected.
“Our lives are not a political issue. They are a human right,” she said. “And only through education, dedication and collaboration can we protect that right.”
Organizer Cecilia Harold said the walkout was both a memorial and a protest.
“This is just the beginning of the student movement that calls attention (to) Congress that there needs to be change, whether that’s mental health backgrounds, more background checks for guns...,” she said.
“Raising the age limit to get guns,” Wang added.
“Right. There’s so many different solutions, but there just needs to be something done,” Harold said.
“Our goal is to start a conversation because there is so much tension, or almost people feel like stigma, against talking about gun violence, and so we really want to start a conversation in the community—an honest conversation—about what gun violence is and how it’s affecting us,” Wang said.
After Wang’s speech, she, Harold and several other students read off the names of Parkland shooting victims and information about each one. Nearby, another organizer, Helen Forbeck, read the victims’ names into a megaphone.
Helen’s father, Matt Forbeck, stood nearby. He had arrived early and handed out protest signs to students.
State Rep. Deb Kolste and Janesville School Board member Cathy Myers, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to run against Rep. Paul Ryan, appeared at Craig to support the students. Across Randall Avenue, someone held a sign reading, “Proud of you!” Several passing motorists honked in support.
“Gun violence is directly impacting children and our education, and not to be egotistical or anything, but children and students are the future,” Wang said. “So by endangering our lives and our future, we’re also endangering the lives of the nation and our citizens.”
A Janesville police officer said the walkout was “very peaceful.”
‘A safe haven’
At Parker High School earlier in the week, English and social studies classes focused on First Amendment rights and civil disobedience.
“It’s important for us to show our condolences for the 17 lives lost,” Rush said. “People are supposed to feel safe at school. It should be a safe haven. You shouldn’t have to worry about school violence.”
Schroeder said it was important to show that students have a voice in the community, and that voice matters.
Sophomore Izzy Ferris knows people who have served in the military and have struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. She worries about the kids who have to return to the school where their friends died.
“Now those students that have been through that, they’re definitely going to have it,” she said.
Senior Seamus Murphy said he wanted to show in a tangible, “physical way” that people were concerned.
“A lot of shootings have gone on, and they’ve been pushed under the rug,” he said.
Murphy was impressed that students could respect each others’ opinions on such a controversial topic.
How would students improve school safety? Their ideas included more school safety programs, outreach to others and basic respect for others every day, all the time.(tncms-asset)acec0f1e-27b4-11e8-9820-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)
At Milton High School, Wilson and Kathy Leong and members of a women’s exercise group from The Gathering Place also attended the walkout. Some held signs calling for changes to gun laws.
“As adults, we kind of decided it would be a good idea just to be off on the side, not at their event, to illustrate adult support for what they were doing,” Wilson Leong said. “We as adults make the decisions, and those are the young people that are going to have to live and breathe those decisions.”
Some women in the Leong-led group planned to bake cookies for the students in detention. Kathy Leong said Bilhorn told her some students were going to use their detention time to call their legislators.
Milton students didn’t seem to care about receiving detention.
Freshman Valeria Fernandez-Toledo said she was willing to accept the consequences of her actions. She called it “inspiring” to see her fellow Milton students and others across the country push for change.
She and her friend Julia Young said arming teachers with weapons, as some legislators have suggested, would only add fuel to the fire. A student could get upset and be in close proximity to a gun, they said.
Richmond suggested stricter background checks and higher age requirements for those buying weapons. He worried about gun safety because the locations of past school shootings were similar to Milton—small, sleepy towns where no one expects tragedy.
He didn’t mind the detention, either.
“Protesting and standing up for what you believe in doesn’t really count for much if you’re unwilling to withstand the tide against you,” Richmond said. “The strength of your ideas is only measured by how much you’re willing to stand.”
‘You have a voice’
At Delavan-Darien High School, almost 300 students walked out and for 17 minutes, held signs, chanted “We are the future” and wrote letters to elected officials.
Some students gave out voter information, and others signed a pledge to meet 17 new people in honor of the 17 victims of the Parkland shooting.
Some signed a petition demanding gun control. Many huddled around a laptop and scanned a QR code that sends information by text message about local elected officials and public meetings.
Organizers Lizzie Sirkman and Olivia Patterson read aloud each shooting victim’s name.
“Today, we gathered you all here to recognize that you have a voice,” Patterson told the students. “This is an issue that’s going to be affecting you, and no matter what, we want you to take a stance. We know that this is a problem, and we know that you guys have solutions. So don’t be silent.”
Four other students helped Patterson and Sirkman plan the walkout. It was born on social media with the six students collectively sharing Snapchats and Instagram stories with dates and times.
“We wanted to make sure that students who had opinions, who had perspectives, who were feeling scared knew where to channel that fear and that uncertainty,” she said. “Here’s how you can go about enforcing change and making change and making a positive impact at your age.”
After the Florida shooting, Sirkman said many students she knew had had enough of school violence and wanted to participate in the walkout. But she wanted to open it up to all Delavan-Darien students.
“This is an issue that impacts everybody,” Sirkman said. “Not just those that want gun reform. Not just those that want mental health. It’s an everybody issue, and that’s what we wanted to focus on.”
Principal Jim Karedes said the district didn’t condone the walkout but supports the students’ First Amendment rights. Other than monitoring the students’ safety, administrators and staff were not involved in the planning, Karedes said.
Patterson and Sirkman said they were surprised by the number of students who walked out, which was almost half the high school. As they watched the line of people pour out of the school’s doors, some students said they felt goosebumps.
“This is what Delavan kids can do,” one student said.
About 100 Elkhorn Area High School students walked out and observed a moment of silence before returning to class after 17 minutes, Superintendent Jason Tadlock said in an email. About 150 middle school students also walked out, he said.
Participants returned to class without incident, Tadlock said. Those who were not involved continued with classes as scheduled.
About 50 to 75 students at Whitewater High School and 60 middle school students participated in the walkout, Superintendent Mark Elworthy said in an email.
Students participated for 17 minutes and then went back to class, he said.
Lake Geneva police wrote in a Facebook post there had been false reports that “armed officers” stopped students from exiting Badger High School.
Armed officers were present, and all officers always are armed while on duty, but the officers did not prevent students from exiting the building, according to the post.
”The reason for the extra officers was to ensure the safety of students had they exited the school,” the post reads.
“The group of students who organized this event did a great job and worked with school staff and our department to organize the safety of the event, which was held in the main gymnasium at Badger High School,” the Facebook post states.
Gazette reporters Jake Magee, Jonah Beleckis, Nate Jackson, Jim Dayton and Catherine W. Idzerda contributed to this story.