ROCK FALLS – It's a tricky position to be in: How can educators encourage teens to be part of a time-honored American tradition of peaceful protest and still keep them safe?
It's a question many have wrestled with, and have answered for themselves and their schools:
Citing safety concerns, some local administrators are putting restrictions on how local high schoolers will participate in this morning's 17-minute National Student Walkout, organized by students to protest gun violence and call for stronger gun laws.
March 14 marks the 1-month anniversary of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 14 students and three staff members dead. Starting at 10 a.m., 17 minutes of peaceful protest are being planned – 1 minute for each person killed.
Locally, students from Thome, Rock Falls, Sterling, Dixon and Newman Central Catholic will participate in various ways.
Sterling High students will walk out at 10 a.m. and lap the track for 17 minutes, said senior Lama Zaioor, who is coordinating the march.
"This march will be a display of peaceful protest against Congress' inaction about the gun violence that plagues schools and students," Zaioor said.
Thome students are walking out in remembrance not only to honor the Parkland victims, but also to remember a staffer's family member. Matthew Anderson was killed March 1, 2014, when a friend who was holding his father's gun accidentally shot him.
Administrators at Dixon and Rock Falls high schools aren't allowing students to protest outdoors, but will allow them to demonstrate within the safety of their buildings.
At Dixon High School, for example, students will be allowed to walk in the halls from 10 to 10:17 a.m. Administrators there don't endorse public walkouts.
"Publicly giving a time and place where kids walk out of school is a safety issue," Principal Michael Grady said.
At Rock Falls High, a retreat for the B.L.I.N.D. program has been planned for months, and "freshmen, juniors and senior students are welcome to gather in the gym with the sophomore B.L.I.N.D. retreat to walk with them," Principal Mike Berentes said.
Building Lasting Impressions that Never Die is a program in which students get to know one another through retreats designed to break down stereotypes in and between high schools.
The protest happens to be occurring during Lenten Mass, so Newman students "will be walking over to Sacred Heart Catholic Church at 10 a.m., ring the bell 17 times for the victims of the tragedy and then continue to a penance service for Lent," Principal Kathy Howard said.
Those schools not allowing outside protests are not alone. Other school districts in the state are opting for indoor demonstrations, while others are banning them outright, and plan to punish students who participate with suspensions.
Some schools are taking the opportunity to have school resource officers talk with students about staying safe during a school shooting, others are encouraging parents to discuss gun safety on related issues with their children. Student activities or moments of silence also are being planned.
ADVICE FOR SCHOOLS
The Illinois School Board of Education has made available to school districts guidelines on how to handle student walkouts that were written by the Council of Chief State School Officers in the wake of the Parkland shootings.
The guidelines include "tips school principals and school administrators can use in supporting students upon learning about the possibility of an organized walkout, or similar effort."
They recommend administrators:
• Meet with student leaders.
• Offer counseling and support.
• Prioritize safety.
• Make this a teachable moment.
• Prepare staff in advance.
• Proactively communicate with students and families.
The CCSSO is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization of public officials who head elementary and secondary education departments nationwide. Go to shawurl.com/38ov to read the full text of the "CCSSO Recommended Guidance on Student Walkouts;" go to ccsso.org to learn more about the organization.