Following a student-led gathering Friday morning at Streator High School’s courtyard, senior James Coyne asked students to walk out of classes and join him across the street for a protest against gun violence.
Roughly 20 students joined him carrying signs that said, “books not bullets,” “enough is enough,” and “Make America safe again,” among others. They also chanted “save our schools” and “never again.”
A small group of students approached the high school’s administration about having a gathering for the National School Walkout, planned 19 years to the day of the Columbine school shootings in Colorado.
Superintendent Matt Seaton OK’d the Friday morning assembly, which spoke against school violence, but he said students who walked out of classes to protest will be subject to discipline under the school’s unexcused absence policy.
Coyne didn’t believe the presentation Friday did enough to spread the message. Coyne also had walked out of a March 14 assembly to remember those who died in the Parkland, Fla., school shootings. Coyne’s walkout was captured in a YouTube video.
“With the assemblies, we’re only able to spread our message to others in school,” Coyne said. “If we come out here, we can show the whole community how we feel.”
Coyne said he believed many students chose not to walk out, because they feared discipline.
The protesters were met with mixed reactions from passersby. Some honked with approval, other motorists gave a thumbs down or shook their heads, and one lady driving a van screamed a profanity out of her window.
“We want change,” Coyne said. “Everyone here has their own opinions, and we’re advocating it in our own ways. Some want stricter background checks for gun owners, some want a ban on the extreme guns.”
Coyne said it was important for him to call for a protest during the school day, because that’s when the most students would be available, and give full attention to it.
He said the school shootings have a personal connection to him, because he attended Berrendo Middle School in New Mexico, where a 12-year-old student brought a shotgun to school and injured two students with shots. Coyne wasn’t at the school at the time, but he said he has friends from the school affected by it.
Later in the afternoon, students walked to City Hall to continue their demonstration.
Friday’s walkout was organized by high school student Lane Murdock, of Connecticut, and was advocated by Indivisible groups across the country. The student started an online petition after the Parkland shooting in February, saying America was becoming numb to mass shootings.
Ottawa High School didn’t have any events scheduled or walkouts Friday, said Superintendent Michael Cushing. Students led an assembly there March 14 in memory of the victims of Parkland, Fla.
Coyne said the campaign shouldn’t stop Friday.
“We want to write letters to our congressman, (Adam) Kinzinger,” he said. “We’re doing this for the people who lost their lives. We need to change to put a stop to it.”