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Not at my school: East Ridge students protest gun violence

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Student activist Grace Knutson, 18, rehearsed her speech April 20, prior to a student walkout at East Ridge High School in Woodbury. More than 2,500 schools participated in the nationwide protest against gun violence. Classmates Regan Dolezal and Braden Sydor (from left) also spoke. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia 3 / 3

WOODBURY — On his way out of East Ridge High School, senior Collin Brown patted his friend on the back.

"Ready to show them what democracy looks like?" he asked.

Brown was one of about 70 students staging a walkout at East Ridge on April 20 — the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre. They joined more than 2,500 schools across the country who registered their protests on the official National School Walkout website.

After a 20-minute demonstration consisting of three speeches outside the school's activities entrance, about half the students carpooled to the Capitol, joining protesters from across the state.

During the demonstration, organizers handed out slips of paper with voter registration information. One speaker noted that a student had been wounded that very morning in a shooting at Forest High School in Ocala, Florida.

"I feel like since we're just 18 this year, we're finally actually getting our independence and our voice," Mikayla Manders said. "You walk away [from the rally] with more confidence and more passion for the topic. You can actually do something about it now."

"Looking at everything that's been happening ... there's a need for change," senior and co-organizer Braden Sydor said. "We've seen past generations be called, but now it's our turn."

Braden's twin brother, Parker Sydor, said attending previous demonstrations in the wake of the Feb. 14 Parkland, Florida shooting motivated him to help organize the East Ridge event.

"It's helpful to see you have a community backing you up," he said.

Parker Sydor and senior Meaghan Rapp said they hoped their activism would leave a lasting impression on underclassmen.

"As a senior, it's kind of like, what am I leaving this school with? Now I know, with two months left of school, I'm leaving with it with this kind of positive event," Parker said.

Although they hadn't yet heard about their punishment for skipping the rest of the day, both students said they were bracing for a detention — the standard punishment for an unexcused absence.

If students brought written permission from parents, however, they were permitted by the school to walk out, said Shelly Schafer, director of communications and community relations for District 833. She said they implemented safety measures that were similar to school walkouts last month. March 14, students at East Ridge, Park and Woodbury High Schools participated in another national walkout on the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting.

What was different about the April 20 protest was that students expressed their intentions to leave school grounds for an extended period, Schafer said.

The district also sent a statement ahead of the protest notifying students and families that walking out could still count towards an unexcused absence without a note of permission.

"We absolutely support their right to free speech as long as it's not disruptive to the learning environment," she said. "If they walk out of class that's where the attendance policies come into play unless they were excused by their parents."

Since they haven't had to deal with student protests until recently, there's no official policy beyond the standing attendance rules, Schafer said.

"This is something that's very new to the world of schools," she said.

East Ridge administrators did not allow reporters to stay for the full demonstration, citing district policy.

An hour before the walkout, several student organizers set up a public address system and lectern, where they rehearsed their speeches. As part of his planned speech, Braden Sydor read the names of the 13 people who were murdered by two student gunmen at Columbine.

East Ridge senior Jane Ahmann sat and drafted a speech that she said she hoped to share with other student protestors at the state Capitol.

"I'm a big advocate for common-sense gun control," she said. "I can buy a gun and I'm 18. I think that's ridiculous, since I can't walk to the bathroom at school without a pass."

While she doesn't advocate banning guns, Ahmann said she supports raising the minimum age for gun purchases, longer waiting periods and curtailing the public's access to semi-automatic assault rifles and high-capacity magazines. The former student who murdered 17 people in Parkland, Florida school massacre used an AR-15 assault-style rifle.

"We're lucky at East Ridge because we live in an affluent area so we have more of a voice," she said.

She thinks that the Parkland shooting may have received more attention in part because it took place in an affluent community.

"It's definitely very moving to see kids my age — I've known all these kids for years — to see them speaking out about something so close to their hearts," Parker Sydor said after the event. "Watching my peers receive that was a really cool experience too."

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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