Fifty students walked out of St. Anthony Middle School on June 5, trailed down the hill toward Silver Lake Road and gathered in a circle in front of City Hall. Their earnest young faces were soft and round, without the angularity that comes with adolescence. Yet they delivered their message succinctly, and much more politely and maturely than many adults seem capable of doing these days.
Through songs, poetry and essays they’d written themselves, the students said they were sick of hearing about school shootings, and tired of wondering if their school would be next. They call their group Children Have A No Guns Expectation (CHANGE).
“CHANGE formed on April 20, after a walkout planned by some eighth graders in coordination with the staff at our school,” explained Miranda Chance in an email interview. “Many kids felt like the walkout wasn’t enough, so we missed class to plan something bigger. We have since done a student-led teach-in about gun reform.”
The group includes “kids whose parents who are also against gun violence, but there’s also a large number of kids whose parents neglect to talk to their kids about gun violence, and the kids develop an opinion against guns on their own.” Chance concluded, “It is rare that we have a kid whose parents support the NRA and gun ‘rights’ at our protests and meetings.”
The protest was planned and led by the students. In an email, teacher Tom Rademacher said he lets the students use his room after school on Fridays. He wrote, “I get to watch them plan and organize and research and debate, but all of the work is theirs.”
He also introduced them to political action specialist Paul Winkelar, who, said sixth-grader Meiran Carlson, “gave us advice on our protest. From what he said, it sounded to us like the march to the Capitol wouldn’t be a good idea. People are there almost daily, and lawmakers still don’t pay attention.”
At their next meeting after the April 20 walkout, the students decided to hold a teach-in on May 25. They planned it in four 50 minute meetings, using the same format they used later on June 5. The students also met with Erin Maye-Quade, who answered questions on how she is working in the state legislature to have young voices heard and what she is doing to make schools safer.
The decision to hold another walkout followed that teach-in. “One of the CHANGE members brought up that our group should have an end-of-the-year walkout so that we could end the year strong. Our principal was there and she okayed it,” said Carlson.
Carlson organized the walkout and bought tagboard to make signs.
“We did not alert many teachers and staff, because if they helped us, then anyone could do it, and we would have had to stay on school grounds,” said Chance. “We tried to keep the walkout on the down-low with the students, too, because many of them would not take it seriously.”
The sober nature of the event was one of its hallmarks. The students laughed, waved and smiled as cars passed them along Silver Lake Road, but quickly became serious once inside the circle. They took turns, signaling their wish to speak by raising their hands. They made sure they turned to address everyone within the circle.
“Why do we still have guns?” asked one 12-year-old boy. “I want to feel safe at school, in the community and at home. This country has forced us to grow up fast.”
One girl said, “Most of us are 11 to 14 years old. We have to step up to stop this. The adults can’t cure it.”
Some of the children became emotional when they spoke of loss, or lack of family support for their ideas. Others stepped forward to offer a hug and emotional support.
Another student said, “We shouldn’t let the Second Amendment control us.”
Said Lu Chaput, “We are like the children in the Children’s March of the Civil Rights movement. We will bring change.”
Jayla Mims said, “We will change each other and each other’s perspectives. Change doesn’t start with the whole universe. It starts with one little meeting and expands.”
No one came out from City Hall to greet them or ask why they were there. The only adults who heard them were three or four teachers who had followed them, a parent and a reporter.
Still, the students considered their protest a success. “Going into middle school this year was hard enough, but constantly having the fear of dying or watching your peers dying in a place where your safety should be guaranteed put even more stress and anxiety on me and every other student,” wrote Carlson. “Since CHANGE was formed in such distress, we have had so much power and influence on the people in our day-to-day lives. Kids who you never thought would come to our meetings came, but then when you really think about it, it affects ALL kids in America. Regardless of race, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or anything, it affects them. Every last one of them who steps into a school building every day. Our voices really needed to be heard. Student empowerment is something our country is lacking, and that’s why our group was formed. To let OUR voices be heard and to make CHANGE.”