AURORA, Ill. — One week after 17 people were killed at a Florida school, high school students across the Aurora area joined others nationwide in staging walkouts.
At noon Wednesday, Feb. 21, students in the Chicago suburbs of Aurora, Oswego, St. Charles and Batavia walked out of class, seeking to remember those killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida on Feb. 14 and to advocate for changes to gun laws. Later Wednesday afternoon, a group of East Aurora High School students gathered in downtown Aurora with signs bearing slogans such as "protect kids not guns."
"I personally don't want us to be just another school that gets shot up, especially with the variety of kids we have at our school," said West Aurora High School junior Gabriela Serrano, who said she helped organize the walkout there with another student. "And I felt it was important to let our student body know that we're not going to let that happen."
The walkouts come after survivors of the Parkland, Florida, shooting harshly criticized politicians' response to the incident and their stance on gun laws. Nationwide, other walkouts and marches are planned for later in March and for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting.
At West Aurora High School, Serrano and another student who said she helped organize the walkout, senior Mariah Barnett, said everyone has different views on gun control and their ultimate goal was to simply show lawmakers students are serious about demanding action on gun laws.
They spent about 17 minutes outside, giving short speeches about why they were there and spending time in silence to remember the people killed, Serrano and Barnett said.
About 200 of the high school's roughly 3,700 students initially were prepared to walk out, district spokesman Tony Martinez said. Administrators told them they would be considered absent and the same protocols would be followed as any other day, and gave students the option to instead go to the school's auditorium where they could have conversations with each other and adults and write to legislators. The district's schools are the most secure places for students during the day, Martinez said.
Ultimately, about 100 students ended up going to the auditorium, and 100 walked out, Martinez said. The majority went back to class after the walkout, he said.
"We encourage students to speak up for what they believe and their views," Martinez said. "But then at the same time, we also encourage them to make sure that what they want to express is productive and really not interrupting the school day, interrupting the learning environment."
Seventeen-minute walkouts also took place at Oswego East High School, where just over 100 of the school's roughly 2,500 students walked out at noon; at Batavia High School, where several hundred of the nearly 2,000 students walked out, a district spokeswoman said; and in St. Charles, where from 150 to 200 students from St. Charles East High School and 27 from St. Charles North left their buildings for 17 minutes, one minute for every person killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, said Carol Smith, spokeswoman for School District 303.
In Oswego, Community Unit School District 308 spokeswoman Theresa Komitas said Wednesday's walkout was planned fairly last-minute, and district leaders are working on plans for likely upcoming walkouts that allow students to exercise opinions without putting them in harm's way.
Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville had about 30 students participate in a walkout, a district spokeswoman said.
At East Aurora High School, about 30 students walked out and, at the request of administrators, gathered in the high school stadium, district spokesman Tom Jackson said. They remained outside for 17 minutes in recognition of the 17 people killed, he said.
East Aurora High School Principal Marina Kosak encouraged participating students to find constructive ways to express their beliefs, such as writing letters to U.S. lawmakers, Jackson said. When they came back inside, each was scanned with a security wand and searched, per school safety protocol, he said.
Seven of those students went to a downtown Aurora corner to protest gun violence and advocate for making guns less accessible. They were met with honks from passing cars and a high-five or discussion on gun laws from passersby.
One of the students, senior Zinnia Medrano, said she wanted to see tougher gun laws "so that we aren't afraid of going to school." Senior Jayson Ramos said mothers shouldn't be afraid to send their kids to school.
Barnett and Serrano said they hoped to plan an upcoming event related to the Florida shooting with West Aurora students.
Barnett said this West Aurora walkout grew out of a Twitter post she saw the night before. She and Serrano worked to spread the word quickly on social media.
They walked out to make their voices heard, and she thinks it was successful: now others are talking about what they did, Barnett said.
West Aurora senior Sara Steelglove, who said she participated in the walkout there, said she wouldn't be surprised if a shooting happened at her school knowing how prevalent guns are in the Aurora area. She hopes the walkout drew attention to the gun issue.
"Living where we live in the Chicagoland area, which is one of the most violent places, and going and shooting people, that's just not right," she said. "And especially kids. Kids have so much more growing up to do. Going into the high school, it's like, they won't be able to see graduation day. The kids that get hurt or the kids that get killed, they don't get to see their graduation day. They don't get to see their wedding day. And the parents don't get to see them doing all the stuff that they want them to do."