Oak Park and River Forest High School senior Grace Houren (left) stands alongside classmate and march organizer (right), Taylor Montes-Williams, May 25 during a protest march at Scoville Park in Oak Park. Houren and Montes-Williams were among many OPRF students who led a protest march against gun violence and honor the 21 lives lost in the mass school shooting in Texas. Photo provided

Four years ago, Grace Houren was at Scoville Park, protesting against gun violence. She was 13 — just a year or two younger than most of the students shot dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Surrounded by friends, classmates, community residents and local leaders, the Julian Middle School eighth-grader felt empowered as they united to take a step toward change.

Houren, now 17, doesn’t feel that way anymore. Just one day after a mass shooting at a Texas elementary school, Houren found herself back at Scoville Park in front of another crowd, mourning the lives of 19 children and two teachers and pleading with attendees to take action — again.

“I think about the fact that I was standing in this same spot at this exact park four years and one month ago today leading the protest after the Parkland shooting,” said Houren, an Oak Park and River Forest High School senior, at the May 25 protest march. “I remember how in awe the parents were that 13-year-olds were taking action, while politicians shook my hand for a photo op but did nothing legislative for our cause.

“All our representatives could do was give their thoughts and prayers.”

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Houren was one of five OPRF students who stood on a small stage at Scoville Park, urging stricter gun laws. They recalled learning and practicing active shooter drills in school and listed the school shootings that have occurred in their lifetime, while attendees encircled them, some holding signs. One sign that hovered over the crowd read: “Am I next?”

“How many more people have to die before change is made?” Greta Kirby, one of Houren’s classmates and march co-organizer, asked the crowd.

The mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, is the second-deadliest school shooting in the U.S. with 21 people dead. Nineteen of the victims were 10- and 11-year-old children.

The massacre in Texas trails only Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, which occurred a decade ago in 2012, when 26 people, 20 of whom were children age 6 and 7, were killed by a gunman.

Kirby, 17 and an OPRF senior, spoke about H.R. 8, a bill that would expand background checks for people seeking to purchase guns. The bill has passed in the House but not yet in the Senate.

“There’s 50 senators right now who refused to vote on H.R. 8 …,” said Kirby. “They have had the tools to create change for two years, but they refuse.”

“We want our representatives to support this bill, and we will vote out any government officials who prioritize greed for money and power over gun control and the lives of the American people,” she added.

At the march, Taylor Montes-Williams joined a handful of students of color who opened up about the impact of the Texas shooting on them and their communities. Montes-Williams, a student activist and OPRF junior, said the mass shooting in Texas came nearly a week after yet another gunman opened fire at a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York.

“I know that there’s a lot of parents here in the audience,” said the 17-year-old Montes-Williams, who is Black and helped Kirby organize the protest. “You should watch the media that your kids are consuming because the Buffalo shooter was in racist forums before it happened, and I should not be afraid to go to the grocery store. I should not be afraid to go to school.”

In separate interviews with Wednesday Journal, Houren, Montes-Williams and Kirby shared the moment they found out about the mass shooting in Texas. They saw the news unfold through a news app on their cellphones, the deaths rising as more information came in, the conversations on social media unfolding by the second.

Montes-Williams said she was overcome by a familiar set of feelings — first anger, then sadness — as she was flooded by the shooting’s details.

At the march protest, the crowd headed down Lake Street to Scoville Avenue, stopping at the main entrance of Oak Park and River Forest High School. There, they continued to share their stories and encouraged people to wake up, pay attention, speak up and register to vote.

“These children should be my age. I’m preparing to go to college and stuff like that,” an exasperated Montes-Williams said to the Journal about the children killed at school in Uvalde. “They should be able to see that in their future, but just the thought that there’s over a dozen kids who won’t be able to see that is heartbreaking.”

Village, schools respond

On May 26, one day after the mass school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, Oak Park Village President Vicki Scaman released a statement, extending condolences to the families of victims and to a community in despair and in search of answers.

“Gun violence is a scourge on our society, and it is becoming increasingly clear that mass shootings can occur at any time and place,” Scaman said. “While gun violence is clearly a threat to public safety, we also recognize it as a public health crisis considering so many lives are cut far too short by senseless shootings.”

Scaman described the shooting as “horrific” and said the village supports “common-sense reforms to end gun violence and build safer communities.”

School officials in Oak Park and neighboring River Forest also shared similar messages to staff, students and families. In districtwide emails sent after news of the incident surfaced, they listed their own safety protocols and available networks of support, especially for those grappling with the massacre at Robb Elementary School.

“This event is so tragic on so many levels,” said River Forest District 90 Superintendent Ed Condon in an email. “To have this horrible event occur in an elementary school only deepens the emotional turmoil of this act and brings this nightmare closer to our daily lives.”

“As educators and parents, we are all faced with the difficult task of supporting children who may be scared and struggling to process what occurred,” said Greg Johnson, superintendent of Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200. “What to say or do at the moment when no words seem right can be difficult.”

Condon and Johnson told parents and guardians that social workers and counselors are on standby for students in need of someone to talk to. They also directed families to connect with them or other staff, as well as resources from the National Association of School Psychologists or The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Both sites have information for parents looking to help their children cope with the news of mass shootings. 

“Thank you for your strength, understanding and fortitude during this horrific tragedy,” Condon said. “Our children rely on us for their emotional stability during such times. We will persevere.”

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