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‘Actions speak louder than words:’ Students take part in National Walkout Day

Worthington High School students participate in Wednesday morning's National Walkout Day in recognition of 17 lives claimed during Florida school shooting and to advocate for gun reform. (Alyssa Sobotka / The Globe)1 / 4
Students participate in 17 moments of silence Wednesday outside of Worthington Middle School. (Karl Evers-Hillstrom / The Globe)2 / 4
Worthington High School student Trequan Wright leads a prayer Wednesday morning as part of the National Walkout Day remembering the lives claimed during last month's school shooting in Parkland, Fla. (Alyssa Sobotka / The Globe)3 / 4
Haley Grimmius (left) and Brigette Rosenberg work on a poster promoting unity and positivity after Wednesday's walkout. (Karl Evers-Hillstrom / The Globe)4 / 4

WORTHINGTON — Students from at least eight southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa school districts participated in a national movement Wednesday.

The purpose of National Walkout Day was two-fold, which area school districts demonstrated by how they chose to uniquely approach the movement.

Whether area districts’ students vocally advocated for gun reform or not, one similarity took the forefront of all demonstrations. On the one-month anniversary of the Parkland, Fla. mass school shooting tragedy — students spent 17 minutes — one minute for each life claimed — honoring and remembering the victims.

Fulda High School Principal Tyson Walker summed up Wednesday’s event as a powerful way in which students supported their fellow Americans.

“It was a powerful demonstration using silence as their voice,” he said. “Sometimes actions speak louder than words.”

Worthington students walkout/walk up

At 10 a.m. sharp, an estimated couple hundred Worthington middle and high school students gathered outside the main entrances of their respective buildings to pay tribute to — and stand in solidarity for — the Parkland, Fla. victims.

“At the end of the day, you’re looking out for you and your future,” Worthington High School student Theodora Oputa told her peers gathered in front of the school Wednesday. “You have a right to come to school and be alive.”

While the high school’s demonstration included comments from Oputa and two other students, students at WMS approached the walkout another way. For 17 minutes, students stood in complete silence.

WMS Principal Jeff Luke said he allowed students to participate in the movement and encouraged teachers to have discussions with students afterwards about spreading a positive message.

“We wanted to use this opportunity to remind our students to stop bullying, both in person and online, to walk up and sit next to the kid who’s alone at lunch … and just be a good person,” Luke said.

In Pat Henkels’ family and consumer sciences class classroom, WMS students participated in open discussions on the walkout and what they thought it meant to them. Afterwards, Henkels’ students worked together to create signs, banners and videos on both the need to end gun violence in schools and the need for students to unite and be good to one another.

Special Education Teacher Kari Statema’s students explained they stood in silence in remembrance of the students and staff who died in the Florida shooting. They discussed how important it is to help students who are hurting or lonely, to report suspicious activity and to end any kind of fighting or violence that occurs in school.

“I was very proud of our school,” Statema said. “This moment was about what was in our hearts at that moment and not about any agendas. Seventeen minutes of silence … which impacted our students so deeply.”

Ximena Lopez Cervera (left), Jake Brandner, Andrew Benson and Eh Ta Mu Do work on an anti-gun violence poster, where each hand represents a kid's life. Cristina Magana and Macy Joens (pictured in the background) spearheaded the project. (Karl Evers-Hillstrom / The Globe)

Oputa said she spoke with WHS Principal Josh Noble well in advance of Wednesday’s demonstration.

“Administration was aware,” she said. “We weren’t being defiant.”

She said consequences, if any, were up to the discretion of each teacher.  

Noble confirmed a few student leaders came to administration prior to Wednesday’s demonstration indicating that they experienced a sense of solidarity and a commitment to change.

“The students involved were extremely respectful and thoughtful,” Noble said. “The students who spoke and prayed handled themselves with poise.”

Despite social comments that have escalated since Wednesday's demonstration, the WHS senior said the event was not meant as a protest, but to show respect for the 17 lost lives and to bring awareness to what many students believe is a growing concern throughout the nation.

“Nobody was talking about banning guns,” she said. “That’s what people have taken it as, but that’s not what we were there for. The most important thing was in remembrance of the children and teachers that lost their lives that day.”

WHS student Trequan Wright said Wednesday’s demonstration, like he had hoped,was a powerful moment.

“I came out here to make a voice that it’s getting crazy,” he said. “People aren’t understanding — the environments, they’re getting bad.”

From what Oputa can gather, students generally feel safe at school. However, it’s when tragedies like the Parkland shooting occur that some form of anxiety sinks in, she added.

“When the hype is up we’re back to feeling this anxiety when we go to school,” she said. “Once it dies down, everyone is fine.”

But as students across the country demonstrated this week, they’re not keen on allowing that ‘hype’ to go into remission anytime soon.

“I hope in the near future we can see some change and this won’t be a thing that ever has to happen again,” Oputa said.

Other area districts join the movement

Other area public schools that also participated in Wednesday’s nationwide demonstration included Fulda, Windom Area, Heron Lake-Okabena, Jackson County Central, Luverne, Hills-Beaver Creek and Sibley-Ocheyedan (Iowa).

In collaboration with the national demonstration for school safety, student senate leaders at Windom Area High School coordinated a variety of activities that spanned throughout the day, said Windom-Area 7-12 Principal Jake Tietje.

Windom’s day, designated to promote random acts of kindness, also included 17 seconds of silence on the schoolwide intercom following morning announcements. Two banners titled “We Stand Together” and “Never Again” were hung in the commons area to promote student safety. Students who desired to sign them did so throughout the day and during the designated national demonstration time between 10 a.m. and 10:17 a.m.

“The district supported our student body and student senate leaders with this organized, peaceful demonstration,” Tietje said.

A couple of additional peaceful student demonstrations occurred to the south in Lakefield and Jackson.

Seven JCC high school students in Jackson and 16 elementary students in Lakefield also peacefully stood outside the front entrances of their respective schools for 17 minutes before returning to class, said JCC Superintendent Todd Meyer.

JCC Middle School Principal Chris Naumann said he and the school’s social worker, Melissa Ahlschlager, had a conversation with the students that participated. They asked students if they felt safe in school, what students hoped their demonstration would bring light to and what can be done in schools and communities by standing up/walking up — a similar movement intended to promote inclusiveness.

“It was great to hear the students’ voices on violence and their viewpoint on how things can change for the better,” Naumann said.

Another Jackson County school that had a group of students participate was Heron Lake-Okabena.

HL-O Superintendent and Principal Paul Bang said the demonstration did not disrupt school and that students were respectful. He said there are no planned consequences for students that participated, and they were responsible for making up missed coursework.

According to Sibley-Ocheyedan High School Principal Brent Town, seven students at Sibley-Ocheyedan in Sibley participated in Wednesday’s nationwide demonstration by simply standing outside the school’s front entrance.

Town said he contacted the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office to ensure the demonstration was a safe environment for students. He also supervised the 17-minute long event.

Hills-Beaver Creek students did not have an organized walkout, Superintendent and Secondary Principal Todd Holthaus said. However, Holthaus did recognize the 17 individuals that died during last month’s school shooting tragedy over the school-wide intercom system.

Finding their voice

WHS student Oputa watched comments from community members unfold on social media following the demonstration. While some comments deviated from what she said was the students’ purpose for participating in the national walkout, one of the intended goals was met in a roundabout way.

“As children, there’s only so much we can do,” Oputa said. “Getting people to talk about these things is definitely one of the main objectives.”

As someone who is preparing to transition to adulthood and be a contributing member to society, Oputa wants to be part of that discussion, too.

While Wednesday’s demonstration at Worthington High School lacked a suggestion to ban guns, Oputa passionately shared her personal opinion regarding what she sees as an overdue need for gun reform. As far as she’s concerned, she said after the 17-minute long demonstration, gun control means it’s unnecessary for civilians to have military, assault-style weapons.

“This is America,” Oputa said. “This is not a war-torn country. There’s no need to have those. It makes no sense.”

Some active duty military personnel have recited multiple arguments that have been repeated regarding the second amendment and that “guns don’t kill people. People kill people.”

She disagrees.

“I’ve seen the comment, ‘We need it for safety. We need to protect ourselves,’” she said. “In the United States, we spend so much money on the police force and the military. That’s why we have the police force and the military.”

She also mentioned various analogies that have arisen. One in particular, she said, is people trying to relate the gun debate to vehicles, in which unintentional deaths may also occur.

Her response? No one is trying to ban cars, but through research, laws have been created to mandate the use of safety belts.

“We make laws to combat that problem and gun control should be the same,” she said. “It’s clearly a problem. Kids are dying, teachers are dying. Something needs to be done.”