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Meet some of the Illinois students behind Wednesday's school walkouts for gun reform

Vikki Ortiz Healy, Chicago Tribune on

Published in News & Features

High school students across Illinois will join a national walkout at 10 a.m. Wednesday to mark the one month anniversary of the fatal school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

In the weeks since the massacre that left 17 dead, the teen survivors at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have become vocal advocates for gun reform, spurring a nationwide #NeverAgain movement to fight for policies that would prevent future mass shootings. In Illinois, students from across the city, suburbs and state have joined the far-reaching movement to end gun violence with a gusto some school administrators say they haven't seen in decades.

As students organize mass walkouts, educators have been left to strike a delicate balance between encouraging young people's civic engagement and the need to keep them safe.

While schools have the right to discipline students for not being present in class, many school officials across the city and suburbs have worked with student organizers to plan walkouts that are safe, meaningful and nonpolitical. Local student leaders, who acknowledge that the gun debate is complex, hope Wednesday's walkouts will show that they are determined to be a part of an ongoing discussion.

While most schools in the area have been supportive of the student-led walkouts, some school districts worked with student leaders to plan alternative gatherings, including meetings with local legislators or indoor rallies. Teachers and staff at schools where walkouts are planned will continue instruction for students who disagree with or don't want to join the walkouts.

But at dozens of schools across the Chicago area, students who are leading and participating in Wednesday's walkouts -- and the larger fight to end gun violence -- are determined to make their voices heard.

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Damayanti Wallace, 17, junior at Chicago High School for the Arts

Damayanti Wallace considers herself lucky that she's never had a friend or family member killed by gun violence. But that doesn't mean she has never felt its aftermath.

"It feels very close, mainly because there are people who are going through it who could be in your class or who could be in your school," said Wallace, who lives in the Woodlawn neighborhood. "You're talking about it in class, or you're talking about it in the hallway, or somebody's, like, crying in the hallway because something happened last night."

To cope with the grief, confusion and anger that come with growing up around violence, Wallace turns to poetry. In notebooks, at gatherings at Project Orange Tree, a nonprofit that educates youth about violence, and in front of crowds at the Young Chicago Authors, Wallace writes and recites verses to help her and her peers process what it feels like to be afraid to walk to school.


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