The cold weather last Wednesday morning didn’t stop dozens of Columbia High School students from huddling outside the school in remembrance of the victims of a recent Florida high school shooting.
Seventeen people were killed and more than a dozen were injured during the Valentine’s Day incident at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla.
Former Marjory Stoneman Douglas student Nikolas Cruz, 19, is charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in connection with the shooting.
Along with thousands of students across the nation, CHS teens had chosen to exercise their right to protest gun violence in the country as part of the National School Walkout.
CHS students Mia Boyer-Edwards and Eli Brower organized the demonstration.
“It is because of the cataclysmic nature of that tragedy that we stand here today, demonstrating our right to peacefully protest for our lives and the safety of our country,” Edwards said in referencing the Parkland shooting.
Students stood outside the school for 17 minutes — one minute for each victim of the Florida shooting — and observed a moment of silence for victims. Brower also shared a letter petitioning Gov. Bruce Rauner to consider stronger gun legislation in Illinois.
“The amount of deaths that occur in our country due to gun violence are unacceptable,” the letter reads.
In addition, the letter criticizes Rauner’s veto of a gun store licensing bill that would have required gun shops to be licensed by the state. Rauner said the measure would hurt small businesses and do nothing in terms of public safety.
“Your veto of a bill requiring gun dealerships to obtain licenses demonstrates your lack of true initiative to protect your constituents and the students that attend schools in your state … The condition of small shop owners is unimportant within the context of the death that can be inflicted by guns sold by unlicensed dealers,” the letter states.
Those in attendance were given the opportunity to sign the letter. At the end of the walkout, Edwards said she was encouraged with the amount of participation.
“I was definitely surprised given the political and cultural climate in Columbia,” she said.
Brower seconded her thoughts, saying he felt many students might worry about public perception.
“I knew a lot of people would be scared because of the nature of the town. Especially the younger kids with more liberal views,” he said. “That’s why I felt it was important to be strong and set the example.”
Edwards’ inspiration for organizing the walkout came from seeing how powerful the movement was becoming throughout the nation.
Women’s March Youth EMPOWER organized the nationwide protest to be the same day as the one-month anniversary of the Florida shooting, calling for teachers, students, school administrators and parents to take part in the event.
“As I saw the movement building, I thought, ‘If I say that I stand up for my beliefs, I should stand up for what I see as an injustice taking place in this country,’” she said.
Adding to that, Edwards said she hopes to see more federal action, including a ban on military weapons. CHS principal Brian Reeves stood outside during the walkout to serve as a chaperone and to watch the students in action.
“I’m proud of the way the students came together to show support for the tragedy. Mia and Eli did a great job speaking up,” he said.
Waterloo High School principal Lori Costello said about 100 students gathered the same day in the school auditorium to hold a silent protest.
One WHS participant, Ellie Dirnbeck, commented that she thought the silent protest served as an appropriate format for memorializing the Florida shooting victims.
“I also wanted to participate in the walkout because I believe that those 17 kids, along with all other kids in the United States, deserve change,” she said. “And that is truly what everyone walked out for. Everyone deserves to be able to go to school and be safe.”
Dirnbeck lamented that, though her fellow students willingly came together in observation of gun violence victims, the same can’t be said in politics.
“There is no perfect solution,” she said. “But there needs to be some answer that people can agree on that does solve the problem.
“In order for the problem to be solved, we have to start trying different proposals and compromising, or else there will continue to be no change.”
In addition to protests at two local high schools, Columbia Middle School principal Kevin Moore told the Republic-Times that several of his students had participated.
“We had several students ask to go out. We went with them and had a good dialogue about things CMS might be able to do to improve safety in our school,” he said.
In Washington, D.C., demonstrators rallied in front of the White House. Marjory Stoneman Douglas students have also organized a March 24 “March For Our Lives” protest to take place at the nation’s capitol.
A protest planned for April 20, the 19-year anniversary of the shooting that took place at Columbine High School in Littleton, Co., calls for students to walk out of their classrooms at 10 a.m. and leave school for the day.
State, federal legislation
Aside from the gun shop licensure bill Rauner vetoed, the Illinois General Assembly has taken up a number of other gun control proposals.
One involves setting the minimum age to buy an assault weapon at 21. The legislation has passed both the House and Senate.
A ban on bump stocks has also cleared both houses. A bump stock is said to be a device that makes semi-automatic weapons faster.
Finally, a bill proposing a 72-hour waiting period for the sale of any assault weapon has been sent to the governor.
Congress is working on a school safety proposal that recently passed the House. The bill, known as the STOP School Violence Act, was introduced to help schools install panic buttons to alert law enforcement of classroom violence.
U.S. Rep. Mike Bost (R-Murphysboro) helped introduce the bill.