Huddled in a corner of Harold Washington Library, a group of Chicago students from seven different high schools spoke in hushed voices Thursday as they planned the Chicago Student Walkout, a protest against gun violence on the 19th anniversary of the Colorado Columbine High School shooting—Friday at 10 A.M.
The group, Chicago Student Walkout, wants to bring together students from public and private schools all over Chicago to leave class in the middle of the day and convene in Grant Park for a rally featuring speeches, poetry readings, and artistic performances.
The group largely came together through social media and the @chicagostudentwalkout Instagram account. Its first post was on April 4.
“The goal of the Chicago Student Walkout is that we can get kids from all different backgrounds, with all different experiences with gun violence, in one area with one general idea,” said organizer Grace Conrad, 14, a freshman at Francis Parker School in Lincoln Park.
All of the planning so far has been done by students—although they are getting some help from one student’s parents because they didn’t realize that the money they raised from a Gofundme (about $1,100 so far) to buy supplies such as walkie-talkies and bullhorns and pay for vans wouldn’t be available in time.
The students are deliberately walking out on a school day and risking punishment rather than protesting after class or on the weekend.
“We are disrupting the norm of the day,” said organizer Rebecca Gross, a freshman at Francis Parker. “Part of being noticed is possibly getting that negative attention from adults and from teachers, and that’s what’s important—any attention is good attention in this case.”
While Francis Parker is private, Chicago Public School students who take part could face penalties in wake of regulations made after a walkout organized after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. That walkout, held during the school day on March 14, had official support from many school administrators, and students who took part weren’t punished.
While schools contacted by the Reader this week declined to comment, CPS officials forwarded a copy of the new policy saying students could be penalized for an unexcused absence if they take part Friday.
“Students who walk out and do not return within 30 minutes should be marked as an unexcused absence and their parents should be notified that the student has left school grounds and not returned after student walkout. Schools may choose to document this behavior under the Student Code of Conduct as 2-2 Leaving the school without permission, and should use appropriate interventions and consequences that teach and restore the student back to the school community,” the CPS protocol says.
Students realize the consequences.
“We’re facing detention, suspensions—we’re facing possible retractions of walking over the stage for graduation,” said organizer Matthew Gardner, a senior at Northside College Preparatory School. “A lot of things are being thrown at us.”
The prospect of punishment hasn’t deterred them.
“At some point you’re gonna have to [ask] yourself, ‘Which is more important?'” said Conrad. “Is it more important to be fighting for people’s lives or is it more important to be at school for a day, miss classes, and possibly have a Saturday school detention?”
Another issue: organizers do not have the official permits required by Chicago Parks District code if more than 50 people gather in Grant Park with loudspeakers. The Chicago Student Walkout expects more than 1,000 students to protest, and plans on using multiple speakers to amplify sound.
Gardner, who’s 18, also worries that as an adult and a person of color, he could face harsher consequences than the other students.
“What I’m most worried about is legal restrictions,” he said.
While he says the walkout is more a gathering than an official meeting and they don’t plan to march in the streets, he still worries.
“But should there be one officer who doesn’t regard the technicalities—I do face certain disadvantages due to the color of my skin, and so these are things I have to worry about, and since I am 18, I can be charged as an adult,” he said.
However, despite these challenges students are still planning to go ahead with the protest.
“For once it’s the youth in the community, the ones who usually don’t have a voice or a platform to stand on. We’re making our own,” Gardener said. “So if I have a lot on the line, there’s a lot to be gained here.”