As he made plans for the March 14 National School Walkout, a demonstration prompted by the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida on Feb. 14, Oak Park and River Forest High School senior Connor Hartweg is also thinking about the longer term future. 

The 17-year-old — who helped organize a Feb. 21 demonstration at OPRF and who will likely play a leading role in another walkout scheduled for April 20 — said he sometimes wonders whether the momentum that his peers across the country have generated in recent weeks is sustainable. 

“Immediately after the last walkout, there was a huge amount of support, but then it quickly died down,” Hartweg said in a recent phone interview. “So one of the biggest challenges is keeping that momentum going.” 

Hartweg added that he and his fellow student organizers have tried to persuade more of their peers to get involved. So far, he said, the persuasion seems to be working.

“I think we’re finally starting to get all of the students in our school to understand that this movement affects all of them,” he said. “We’re doing this to help protect them, so we’ve gotten a huge amount of support from students lately who are trying to reach out and support however they can.” 

The OPRF senior also addressed some of the skepticism he’s encountered, namely in the form of Facebook comments written by people, particularly adults, who dismiss the student-led demonstrations as mere theatrics. 

“I’ve seen a good amount of comments like that on Facebook,” Hartweg said. “I don’t take those to heart.” 

What he and his co-organizers call a movement has already matured since that Feb. 21 demonstration, which they put together in roughly two hours. Wednesday’s march, he said, should be much larger than the one last month and it will involve adults. 

Max Freeman, another OPRF organizer, posted on Facebook on March 12 that the March 14 demonstration, which begins at 10 a.m. and lasts for 17 minutes (for the 17 who died in the Parkland shooting) would include an adult honor guard “lining the walkout route.” 

Hartweg said that since the February walkout, local activists and political groups — such as Oak Park Call to Action, Oak Park Progressive Women, Gun Responsibility Advocates and the Democratic Party of Oak Park — have reached out to show their support. 

And Hartweg added that he has personally met with state Sen. Don Harmon (39th). Harmon’s Gun Dealer Licensing Act — which introduces more gun regulation measures, such as mandatory background checks for gun dealers — is on the governor’s desk awaiting his signature after passing the House and Senate. 

The senator advised students to apply tremendous pressure on places such as DuPage County, “where they have less tolerant politicians.” 

“We want to ban bump stocks, assault rifle weapons, and military grade weapons,” Hartweg said. “If those [less tolerant politicians] get 1,000 emails from OPRF students, we’ll see a greater effect.” 

The student organizers have also drafted a four-pronged mission statement that they’ve been circulating throughout campus and the wider community, Hartweg said. 

The first aspect of the mission is to “demand that the Illinois General Assembly and U.S. Congress pass legislation on gun violence to keep us safe in our schools, our streets, and our communities.” 

The other aspects include supporting “all victims of gun violence,” shining a “light on the epidemic of gun violence,” particularly among people of color “who are disproportionately shot and killed every day with little or no public outcry,” and empowering and emboldening “youth to use their civic rights […] to seek change in other police arenas.” 

“These are our lives that are in danger,” Hartweg said. “And as long as our lives are in danger, I’m not going to stop fighting.”

Other student walk-outs, protest

Students at Roosevelt Middle School have planned the first political demonstration in school history for March 14, as they join students across the country during what’s being called the Enough National School Walkout, which will take place at 10 a.m. a month after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Principal Larry Garstki said he expects a “significant number” of students to participate in the event. 

“It’s a good teachable opportunity for kids to demonstrate or exercise their constitutional rights of free expression and peaceful assembly,” Garstki said. “As a school, I’m sure we could give them 17-minutes to do that. What a great opportunity for kids to learn how to express themselves, not just for this subject, but for many others they will come across in their lifetime.” 

At 10 a.m., one of the six student leaders from the committee that’s planned the demonstration will make an announcement over the Roosevelt PA system. Then students will exit their classrooms and march for 17 minutes around the perimeter of the Roosevelt campus. Garstki said he expects there will be a moment of silence, and students have prepared signs. 

Some 10 teachers will supervise the demonstration. River Forest police have also been notified of the rally and, though they haven’t been called on for security, they encourage the demonstration, said Dawne Simmons, spokeswoman for River Forest District 90 schools. After the shooting at Parkland, Simmons said Police Chief James O’Shea sent the school a letter saying the department is a strong partner and proponent of student safety. 

“I suspect it will be peaceful and organized and I know that they’re pretty passionate students,” Garstki said. 

Parents and other interested parties can attend if they want. By 10:20 a.m., students must be back in their classes. 

Trinity High School students have likewise planned a “silent prayerful protest” in solidarity with the victims of the school shooting in Florida and all victims of gun violence, spokeswoman Patti Williams said in a statement. At 10 a.m. on March 14, Trinity students will exit the building and line-up on the sidewalk of Lathrop and Division Streets for 17 minutes. Williams said parents and other onlookers are also welcome to attend, so long as they don’t disturb the student protest. Ascension Catholic Church eighth-graders will hold a special Mass at 9:30 a.m. on March 14 to bring awareness to school violence, the school said in a statement. 

“The eighth-graders carefully selected readings to promote peace, and will memorialize the 17 victims of the tragedy by lighting candles and reading a short bio of each of them,” the school said in a statement.

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com 

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