Students across Kansas joined their peers elsewhere in the country by walking out of school Wednesday and into the national debate over guns.
The mid-morning walkouts took them to the streets, to the Kansas Statehouse and circling around their schools to mark the one-month anniversary of the nation’s latest mass school shooting.
Many of the protests focused on 17 minutes of silence: 60 seconds for each person killed during the Parkland, Florida, school shooting.
Students at Lawrence Free State High School stood quietly for 17 minutes. The silence was followed by three students who performed a “slam song,” a kind of poem read out loud.
My bulletproof backpack.
My bulletproof Sunday dress.
Where is the bulletproof legislation we’ve been asking for?
In other cities, the protests were louder and many students focused on guns, following the lead of activists who survived the attack on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.
Republicans in the Kansas Legislature have looked more broadly, and so far made little indication that they’re ready to impose much new gun control.
Republican lawmakers in the Kansas House pushed an effort last week that would call for the Kansas State Department of Education, state emergency response and law enforcement agencies to develop school safety standards for Kansas. Now a bill has been introduced that would create that study.
Hundreds of students from Topeka High School marched to the Statehouse, carrying signs reading “never again” and chanting “enough is enough.”
“I’m not against guns,” said Brenna Allen-Snyder, a 16-year-old. “It’s one thing to protect your amendments, but it’s another thing to have weapons that are meant simply just to kill people as fast as possible.”
Allen-Snyder said she understands 2nd Amendment gun rights, but she thinks certain types of weapons should be banned by lawmakers. If changes don’t come now, she said, her generation will make them happen later.
“We are students who are about to be in charge,” she said. “We will make changes for what we need.”
Schools administrators struggled with how to treat the students participating in the walkouts. Some schools allowed students to walkout without being disciplined. Others said the students would be suspended.
Parents of students at Northeast Magnet High School in Wichita received a recorded message from the school’s principal, Matthew Creasman, saying that the 200 students who walked out on Wednesday will receive a lunch detention. Creasman said civic engagement is important, but that civil disobedience comes with a cost.
“To not accept the consequences is to cheapen the cause,” Creasman said.
He said he would use the lunch detention to discuss crisis procedures and school safety with the students, as well as listen to the students' concerns.
At Wichita Public Schools, the largest district in the state, students received both a tardy and an unexcused absence for walking out. The district discouraged students from walking out and said the safest place for students was in the school.
Northwest High School in Wichita was going to hold an assembly honoring those killed at Stoneman Douglas High School and avoid the topic of gun control. That, in turn, generated a backlash.
The new plan was for students to hold a discussion in the building’s auditorium during lunch moderated by the school’s principal, Eric Hofer-Holdeman. He understood the protest, but said he had student safety in mind.
“We have a school to run,” Hofer-Holderman said. “This is a safe environment. It’s probably one of the safest environments that a student inhabits.”
Several students sent a letter saying the school’s policy was preventing their message from being heard.
“The majority of our students are not 18 and therefore cannot vote for politicians who would make these changes and get others involved with our cause,” the letter said. “We therefore have to speak to adults to be effective.”
Despite the warnings, students streamed out Northwest High School’s front entrance at 10 a.m. They walked and chanted along the outskirts of the school as passing drivers honked and waved in support. One student said a driver flipped them off.
The national group EMPOWER pushed for the school walkouts and helped coordinating protests. But most students at Northwest said they were not connected with any outside group.
While the Northwest students were united in their desire for increased school safety, there was some disagreement about what that meant. While many students supported stricter gun laws, at least one wanted teachers to be armed. Others stayed in class. Some mocked those students who took part in the protests.
When the Northwest students walked into the school they gathered in line to receive their tardy slips from assistant principal Mark Cotton.
“They’re good kids,” he said.
They continued to chant in the hall. The planned 17-minute protest lasted just short of an hour.
As the bell rang to mark the changing of classes, the chants faded and the protesters merged with the flow of students walking to their next class.
Stephan Bisaha is the education reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha.
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