On a frigid Tuesday morning, a bundled-up crowd of at least 400 students — some wearing black hoodies with the slogan, “We Are Trayvon,” and adorned with the face of the 17-year-old who was fatally shot in Sanford, Florida, by George Zimmerman in 2012 — walked out of Oak Park and River Forest High School in what might be one of the most complicated acts of student-led protest in the village’s recent history.
The students exited OPRF’s main entrance, walked south on Scoville Avenue toward Lake Street and headed south on Ridgeland Avenue toward Julian Middle School. There, approximately 300 seventh- and eighth-graders (according to District 97’s count) joined the demonstrators as they headed to the Oak Park police station. As they marched, police stood watch, sometimes facilitating traffic and safe passage, while some school employees walked with the students to manage the crowd.
Outwardly, the protest appeared typical of the many student-led demonstrations in Oak Park within the last few years, particularly after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida last February and in the wake of any number of race-related conflicts that have taken place at least since former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee in 2016.
“I often fear for the life of my sister who happens to be older than me, but is African American,” said Savannah Broderick, a 16-year-old sophomore about her adopted sister.
“This is like in the 1960s, like the love-ins in San Francisco,” said her friend, 15-year-old Scout Brown. “Those are the people who created the culture. Those are the icons we see now. Those were the figureheads of this movement that is now celebrated. And someday we’ll be the figureheads. The ones that TV specials are made about and books are written about.”
Malachi Gant, 16, said that as an African American male, he was prompted to take part in the march to express his frustration with how he’s been treated in Oak Park.
“People usually stare me down and look at me weird and make me feel uncomfortable,” he said.
But the Feb. 26 walkout, unlike the majority of demonstrations that have preceded it over the last few years, has forced both school administrators and organizers alike to confront some difficult questions, such as: When is a student protest appropriate? How will school administrators handle the increasing volume of student-led protests and demonstrations, some of which, like Tuesday’s, may present safety concerns? And what are the boundaries of acceptable student expression?
Antoine Ford, the 16-year-old sophomore who organized Tuesday’s walkout, said he got the idea for the demonstration after administrators at Julian Middle School didn’t allow a group of African-American students to perform a play he recently wrote includes a re-enactment of Trayvon Martin’s famous death.
Ford said that the students are members of an extracurricular group called Reinventing Student Education (RISE), which he founded roughly a month ago. Ford, who has two siblings at Julian, said he often walks from OPRF to Julian after school to facilitate the group. The group wanted the play to commemorate Martin’s birthday, which is Feb. 5.
“The principal [of Julian] let us purchase these hoodies we’re wearing, get the script together and have our rehearsals and everything,” Ford said. “Two days before the actual reenactment he denied it and told us he felt uncomfortable with us doing it. The play was appropriate. It was no type of language in there whatsoever. So, I don’t understand why he told us we couldn’t do it.”
Ford said that when his group, which has roughly a dozen members — all of them either African-American or Hispanic — requested to have a moment of silence instead, the principal “denied that, as well.”
Todd Fitzgerald, Julian’s principal, could not be reached for comment on Tuesday afternoon. District officials directed all questions to Chris Jasculca, D97’s senior director of policy, planning and communication.
In a statement Jasculca issued on Tuesday afternoon, district officials explained that they found out about the walkout on Sunday. District 200 officials sent out a statement to families on Monday.
Both school districts said that they would not stop students from walking out, emphasized the importance of students expressing their voices and said that they prioritize the safety of students.
Regarding Ford’s motive, D97 officials stated that there “have been a few different reasons given as the impetus for the walkout (commemorating the death of Trayvon Martin, speaking out against issues of violence and police brutality, etc.). However, we have not spoken directly to the organizers about what prompted the specific decision to hold today’s event.”
In an interview on Feb. 25, D200 Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams and D200 board President Jackie Moore both agreed with Fitzgerald’s decision to not allow the re-enactment, which they said was not appropriate.
They also expressed concerns about how Ford’s walkout was planned. In the days leading up to Tuesday’s protest, Ford had a flyer designed and circulated throughout the community and online among his peers at OPRF and Julian.
The flyer included his name and contact information. He said he urged students to keep the planned demonstration to themselves, because he wanted to take administrators and Oak Park police by surprise.
During an interview on Sunday evening, Ford lambasted the racism he said is prevalent in Oak Park, calling a proposed racial equity policy at District 97 “a cover up to cover the racial issues that go on” and explaining that he anticipated “police pushback” on Tuesday because of his message.
On Monday, Pruitt-Adams said that she met with Ford multiple times to understand his reasons for planning the walkout.
“We encourage our students to have ‘voice.’ They’re very insightful and when they exercise their voice, we try to know the rationale and to do it in a manner so you know people are listening and are going to take action,” she said. “My discussion was not intended to stop him, but to talk about why and how you get your message out.”
The superintendent’s advice was consistent with what she’s told student organizers and protesters in the past. It’s a message that she may be reiterating more and more often as demonstrations happen with increasing frequency. On Feb. 22, around 100 students at OPRF staged a peaceful protest outside of her office in response to the high school’s treatment of black students.
“They sat silently and peacefully against the walls of the hallway; there was no disruption or impediment for passersby,” Priutt-Adams explained in a statement sent out to families. “I engaged individually with students about their signs. However, I did not address the group as a whole, as the protest leaders shared with me that they were not looking for a response and they were not going to respond if I did speak.”
The superintendent said on Monday that the silent protest did not seem to be related to Tuesday’s demonstration.
There were some demands connected to the Feb. 26 walkout, but they were included in a press release that went out hours before the march started and seemed rushed and disjointed.
Many of the demands included things that are already happening at Districts 97 and 200, including the adoption of racial equity policies by April 30 (D97’s is on track to be adopted sooner than that). Some were related to issues that fall outside of the scope of school, such as the demand that the policing system be “defunded.”
Moore, a longtime advocate of students using their voices to demand change and a supporter of OPRF groups like Black Leaders Union and Students Advocating for Equity — groups that Ford said helped organize the walkout — said that Tuesday’s march was different from the disciplined demonstrations that BLU and SAFE have carried out in the past.
“My concern as I have watched over the last few months, in particular, has been, and I’ve expressed this to SAFE students and others who view me as a trusted adult, is, ‘Don’t allow yourselves to be co-opted by someone else’s agenda.'”
Moore said that adults in the building should be urging students to join groups like SAFE and BLU, and to be aware of the issues happening at OPRF and in the wider community; not helping them with potentially hazardous demonstrations.
“I want the adults in our community to not do harm to our children and to understand that, you know, we are working desperately to make school a safe place,” she said. “I have concerns about our students leaving school, walking to Julian, walking to the police station and I don’t know who is encouraging them that this is the best approach.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misattributed quotes to Broderick and Brown. This article has since been updated. Wednesday Journal regrets the error.