Thousands of students across the Madison area walked out of their classrooms today to protest gun violence. They came from middle schools, high schools, and the UW campus — and joined a national student movement. Their message? Do something to end mass shootings.
It’s been one month since the shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida left 17 students and teachers dead.
WORT had a team of reporters on the scene, and these are just a few stories from today’s protests.
Madison Students of All Ages Call for Safer Schools
Thousands of students converged on the lawn in front of East High School in Madison this morning. Some carpooled with friends and family. Some rode city buses from across town. Some walked in small groups.
Students from nearly every middle and high school in the area showed up.
Keaira White is a 9th grader at Sherman Middle School. She says her family left Chicago to avoid gun violence there. She came to the march with the support of her friends and family. “I want my voice to be heard. It don’t matter what age, what grade, it don’t matter what race. You should speak your mind if you think something wrong… I’m just telling everybody to put the guns down, and let us life a free life.”
Abigail Swetz is a former teacher at O’Keefe Middle School. She says students organized and carried out the event today on their own. “They did it all by themselves… In terms of planning who’s going to speak, how do we get a permit, how do we negotiate where we are going to stand, how do we get sound, it’s all them.”
East High Principal Mike Hernandez says in order to keep his students safe, he wants to see more funding for social services. “I believe we need more social workers and psychs to be able to help support socially and emotionally our children… If we don’t truly meet the root cause of some of the mental illnesses that our society has, everything is a band aid.”
Tracy Ham-Warnakee has been a public school teacher for 21 years. She says she’s sick of losing hours of instruction time dealing with emergency lockdowns at school. “At times it is my job to protect my students from themselves… Putting a gun in my hand does not keep my youth safe.”
Students marched down East Washington Avenue, closing down the highway. They arrived at the Wisconsin State Capitol just after noon for a rally.
Molly Stentz, Alejandro Alonso Galva, Nina Kravinsky, Will Kenneally, Cameron Bren, and Shaun Soman covered the events today for WORT News.
Lawmakers Call for Special Session to Pass School Safety Bills
Students who marched to the Capitol today demanded action from lawmakers and school officials. There hasn’t been much legislative action at the national level after last month’s fatal school shooting.
Now, Wisconsin lawmakers are calling for a special session to pass school safety bills.
After arriving at the Capitol steps today, hundreds of Madison area students walked through the doors.
That was the sound of them demanding change from the Wisconsin governor. Students across the country are doing the same for their own elected officials.
Mario Fregoso is a sophomore at UW–Madison who walked out of class today to march up State Street and meet high school protesters at the Capitol. He says the time to do something about gun violence is now.
“I just want to see movement. I want to see some sort of gun reform… Honestly, I feel like it is a more complicated issue than either side says it is, but we definitely need to do something because it is becoming more and more urgent every day.”
Democrats at the Capitol are also calling for movement. Democratic Senator Dave Hansen asks, “I’m just asking people on the other side of the aisle who aren’t here today… where are they? And why aren’t’ they supporting common sense measures to move our state ahead and help our young people be safe?”
Governor Scott Walker has said he wants to pass a package of school safety bills before the end of the year, but the state Assembly’s done with its slated floor sessions for the year. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, though, says he’d welcome a special session called by Walker.
Walker’s said he’s against arming teachers like some Republicans nation-wide have called for, but he does want to bolster security at schools to make them more like airports.
Democrats like Madison Senator Fred Risser are worried that special session wouldn’t go far enough. “I’m afraid that the special session he’s going to call isn’t going to solve the gun problem. These kids out here still want to work on safety for the schools and that includes a little more regulation on guns.”
The Senate has one more floor session next week, and Democratic Representative Peter Barca is hopeful they’ll pass a bill that cracks down on straw gun purchases. The Assembly passed a bill that would do that at their last scheduled floor session.
Democrats introduced a package of bills yesterday that don’t address guns specifically, but they hope would curb school violence.
One would increase state aid for schools’ mental health programs and another would create 24 million dollars in grants to help school districts develop programs to prevent violence.
Representative Melissa Sargent marched with students to the Capitol today. Sargent’s son is a student at East High and also attended the march today. She says, “We need to talk about why it is that gun violence is so prevalent in the United States.”
Neither Vos nor Walker responded for comment by press time.
Nina Kravinsky reported for WORT News.
Students Use Walkout to Motivate Young Voters
Though many may have found it tough to hear themselves over the roar of the crowd at the Capitol, some are content that their voice will still be heard.
Those hoping to see a policy change are looking toward the next election in November; some will enter the voting booth for the first time.
Izzy Boudnik is a freshman at UW–Madison who walked out of class today with her peers and marched down State Street to meet high school protesters at the Capitol. She wasn’t old enough vote in 2016. Now she is, and things are different. She says that although she wasn’t able to vote in the last election, she will definitely be voting this year.
As with their peers around the country, the students at the Capitol today were smashing the age-old stereotype that young people aren’t engaged. Maddy Peppard, a junior from Memorial, says that the march today served as an important reminder for students to stay vigilant and not just when it comes to voting.
“It’s so important for younger kids to understand that they have access to the numbers of senators and expressing our opinions. I think learning this at this age can help us in the future understand that we have a voice in not only this issue, but any issue that we think is important.”
That excitement for the youth to be politically engaged is mirrored in the old guard as well.
Senator Fred Risser, a Democrat from Madison and the longest serving legislator in the country, says he is looking forward to passing the torch to the next generation. “This group is going to be taking over the running of government pretty soon, and the sooner the better.”
Some tried to take the energy of the march today and turn it into something tangible.
At the top of State Street, a group of Madison student government volunteers set up a table to help young activists register to vote.
Beth Alleman was struck by some of what she calls the complexity of Wisconsin’s voter laws, and seeks to help prospective voters navigate the system.
With turnout among young Americans traditionally low, the influx of new voters could be a catalyst for change. Allison Leyer, one of the organizers from West, says registering the vote is important to the movement. “One of the main movements of this is to get young voters educated on what they are voting for and hopefully convincing them to go to the polls.”
In close elections such as the special congressional election last night in Pennsylvania, with only a 600 vote margin separating the candidates, even small changes in turnout can affect the election.
Many news organizations have already called the razor tight race for the Democratic candidate. That’s in a district where President Donald Trump swept votes, beating Hillary Clinton by a double digit margin.
Will Kenneally covered the story for WORT News.
Interview with Student Organizers
Wednesday’s protest was coordinated by organizers at all four of Madison’s major high schools. The student protest organizers decided they wanted to take their walkout on Wednesday beyond school grounds and march to the State Capitol. Madison Memorial High School started mobilizing as early as 9 a.m in order to rendezvous with LaFollete and West High at East High School’s campus. From there, upwards of 3,000 students from Madison’s high schools and middle schools marched the 2.5 miles to the state Capitol.
Alejandro Alonso Galva spoke with three of the student organizers live on the 6 p.m. Local News. They discussed how the students pulled off the unprecedented protest, the power of women in the movement, and what comes next.