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Reporting on the state of education in your community and across the country.

Ohio Student Walkouts Aim To ‘Mitigate Normalcy’ Of Mass Shootings

Rocky River High School students Ariel Russell, Haley Reash-Henze and Duncan Feighan talk after the walkout they organized at Rocky River High School Wednesday. (Ashton Marra/ideastream)
Rocky River High School students Ariel Russell, Haley Reash-Henze and Duncan Feighan talk after the walkout they organized at Rocky River High School Wednesday. (Ashton Marra/ideastream)

For student organizers at Rocky River High School, Wednesday’s student walkout was about more than remembering those who died in a February school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

It was about standing up and making their voices heard.

“The Parkland shooting really hit me hard,” 18-year-old senior Haley Reash-Henz said. “Parkland is a high school in a community that’s very similar to Rocky River so I felt that I could walk into school and maybe it would be my last time.”

Reash-Henze worked with two of her classmates, 18-year-old Duncan Feighan and 17-year-old Ariel Russell, to organize the walkout which, like many schools across the country, included 17 minutes of silence to honor the Parkland victims.

But Feighan said he wanted to talk about more than just the students and teachers who were killed.

“I hope that we as a generation aren’t the ones that are going to be solving this. I hope that this entire country stands up, [inspired by] us and puts an end to this, to this partisan politics that has infected the issue of gun violence,” he said.

Feighan, Russell and Reash-Henz all shared their thoughts with those gathered on increasing restrictions to purchasing guns.

At Westlake High School, 16-year-old Molly Finucane said students at her school made those sentiments known at their first walkout on February 21. So instead of holding a second demonstration on Wednesday, she and her classmates worked with the school to organize a Justice Fair.

“We’re hoping that in doing that it will create real change because this is more action based,” she said.

The fair, which began during the school day and lasted into the evening, included speakers, a voter registration booth and help writing letters to members of Congress—both in support of and against new gun restrictions.

For Russell, those restrictions should include increasing the minimum age to purchase a gun to 21. She’d also like to see limits on the purchases of semi-automatic weapons and high capacity magazines.

Those, she said, would lead to safer communities and help quell the anxiety that she said is pervasive in schools today.

“I do think that generally there is a fear that a lot of students face,” she said, “and how no matter how many ALICE drills we have, no matter how much our teachers talk about it, there’s nothing really stopping someone with a gun from coming into our school.”

ALICE is an acronym for an active shooter response training program taught at many area schools. It stands for alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate.

“They had school resource officers at Parkland. They had ALICE drills at Parkland,” Russell said, but it didn’t prevent the shooting from occurring.

At some schools, students were threatened with punishment, expulsion or an unexcused absence, for participating in walkouts that weren’t sanctioned by administrators, but others encouraged and even joined students in the protest.

At Citizen Leadership Academy on Cleveland’s east side, Principal Sydney Gruhin joined her students in a march around University Circle. She said it was an opportunity to teach students about activism and using their voices.

“I think that giving them the voice, letting them say what they feel, we’re prepping them to go into high performing high schools so they have to have that voice now,” she said.

Reash-Henz at Rocky River said her administrators took the students’ desire to express their opinions seriously, but that’s not enough.

“I hope that our voices as young people and young adults start to be heard by our legislators, though, because that’s what really matters,” she said.

Her thoughts were echoed by her fellow student organizers. Russell and Feighan both said they hope they don’t have to wait for their generation to come of age to see a change.

“Moving forward after this, I just hope that these walkouts across the country and this one here have at least mitigated the amount of normalization [in] this country,” Feighan said.

“After every shooting in the past 20 years, whether it’s at a high school or a baseball game or a shopping mall or whatever, we have normalized this sort of thing,” he added. “We have grown accustomed to Americans being shot.”