Connor Hartweg, a 17-year-old senior at Oak Park and River Forest High School, stood on a bench in the high school’s mall area Wednesday afternoon and blared angrily into a bullhorn as if his life depended on it.
“America is one of the only countries in the world with school shootings. Is that fair to us? Is that fair to us?” he said to an assembly of at least 300 of his peers — less than 20 minutes after they walked out in the middle of the school day in solidarity with students throughout the country who were also disrupting their normal schedules to push for stricter gun laws.
The demonstrations took place a week after 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz killed 17 teenagers and staff members, and injured dozens of others, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.
According to a group formed on social media after the shooting called Student Walkouts to End Gun Violence, the Feb. 21 walkout is the first in a series of national student-led protests planned to take place in the next few months. Two other national walkouts are planned for March 14 and April 20, both at 10 a.m., the group noted on Twitter.
Max Zadlo, a 17-year-old senior at OPRF, who along with Hartweg helped organize the Feb. 21 walkout, said that he and his peers also plan to demonstrate during those planned walkouts in March and April.
Wednesday’s demonstration, he said, started on a group text messaging app called GroupMe, which is used by roughly 300 OPRF seniors.
“Since we’re the older people in the school, we figured if anyone was going to be a proper example it’s us,” Zadlo said. “We’ve got to connect with the students in Florida, because they are us. If they can’t live to see another day when they’re just starting their lives, that’s not fair.”
Zadlo said that he and his co-organizers planned the demonstration roughly two hours after learning about the national walkout campaign. The OPRF students weren’t alone.
According to Oak Park Elementary Schools District 97 officials, students at both Percy Julian and Gwendolyn Brooks middle schools also planned to walk out of their classrooms at noon on Wednesday and stand in the hallways and other common areas for 17 minutes in honor of the Florida shooting victims.
Administrators at both D97 and OPRF said that they would not actively prevent or penalize students who participate in the day’s demonstrations.
“We will have staff members stationed in the hallways and other common areas during this time period to ensure that the students who wish to engage in this activity have the time, space and opportunity to do so, while also making sure that it does not create safety issues or disrupt the learning and instruction for those who choose not to participate,” said D97 communication director Chris Jasculca in an email.
Nathaniel Rouse, OPRF’s principal, stated in a letter to faculty that “our goal is not to stop students from walking out,” rather, he added, the “goal is to ensure that they are kept safe in the process.”
In the letter, district officials explained that board policies “preclude all district employees from supporting or promoting the student effort.”
As the students at OPRF streamed out of the school’s main entrance and onto Scoville Avenue, Steve Krasinsky stood on the corner of Scoville and Ontario with a small group of adult onlookers.
Krasinsky, an Oak Park resident, is one of the founding council members of the progressive activist organization Oak Park Call to Action. He said that, while his group had no role in the student-led demonstration, he nonetheless wanted to show his support.
“The special thing about this is that the kids are leading it,” he said, adding that he decided to come out when he got notification of the demonstration on social media. “We’re following their lead, which is super powerful. I hope they keep doing this.”
After some student organizers chalked messages onto Scoville’s asphalt, the crowd of several hundred students streamed eastbound on Ontario Street. Few people in the leaderless crowd seemed to know where they were going.
Carolyn Santos, 18, an OPRF senior, marched with the crowd down Ontario before turning right on Cuyler and toward Lake Street, police vehicles positioned at the end of blocks dictating the students’ spirited, subconscious route.
As she walked, Santos held a sign that read, ‘We call BS.’
“I watched a video of this really inspirational woman who was a victim in the Florida shooting,” Santos said, explaining her sign. “She did a speech, where she had the crowd chant with her, ‘We call BS,’ and she talked about guns being more important than our own safety.”
Santos said that she writes a student-produced show about current events. The next segment, she said, will explore gun control “and what we can do to help.”
The OPRF demonstration ended with a short moment of silence for the Florida victims and an impromptu 5-minute pep rally. A group of students stood on a table with a sign and mused aloud about Hartweg’s whereabouts (“where’s the kid with the bullhorn?”) before the 17-year-old appeared and started leading the crowd into chants of, “No justice, no peace!” and, “We want change!”
Jaylen Daniels, 16, was among the crowd. What, he was asked, did he hope to get out of walking out? Would the demonstration make a difference?
“I think this is better than nothing,” he said. “There will always be people who have guns and you can’t just take them away from people who have them, but I hope that gun laws get stricter and background checks get enhanced.”