By Sam Jack
At 10 a.m. Wednesday, March 14, Cheney High School and Clearwater High School students joined thousands of others across the country in walking out of their classrooms.
The impetus for the walkouts was school violence in Florida a month earlier. An assailant armed with a semi-automatic rifle entered Stoneman Douglas High School, killed 17 people, and wounded 17 others.
In memory of the 17 who lost their lives, walkouts across the country, including those in Clearwater and Cheney, lasted 17 minutes.
In Cheney, three adults joined nine students at the high school’s flag pole. In Clearwater, around 60 students participated.
The Cheney walkout was mostly taken up with silent contemplation.
“I never knew how long 17 minutes could be,” said Cheney resident Tanya Shryock, one of the adults who stopped by to support the students. “It’s a long time when you’re just there in silence. It only took the shooter six minutes.”
“I don’t have to live it; (the students) have to live it every day,” Shryock added. “They have to walk through that door and wonder if they get to turn around and walk out. Let’s think like a mom or a grandma and make this safe for our kids.”
Shryock, like some students, expressed support for proposals to ban “bump stocks,” require gun buyers to be 21 years old, and expand background checks.
In Clearwater, the focus was on expressing unity and care for one another.
“We talked about gun control, but we talked more about bullying and how we can look out for people and make sure that nothing like that would happen in Clearwater,” said Chance Clark, a Clearwater High School student. “We had a few kids who I know have been bullied before, and they kind of spoke about it and said that we are family. That went on until the 17 minutes were up, and then we went back inside.”
The rest of the school day felt different to Clark.
“I feel like everyone who did participate, we were all just closer with each other. The kids in our school that had been picked on, I could tell people were kind of looking out for them more. I hope it carries on throughout the future, because it was actually really neat to see.”
Some students who did not participate posted negative remarks on social media, but Clark said most were happy to let classmates follow their consciences and walk out, or not.
“I have friends that didn’t walk out, and I didn’t hold it against them, and they didn’t hold it against me,” he said. “We can have our own views.”
Cheney High School administrators treated students who walked out the same as students absent for any other reason; some students may be required to report to the high school on a Saturday to make up the missed class time.
Bailey Miller was one of the students who walked out.
“I hope people see that little things make a difference,” she said. “These are our lives and we’re taking things into our own hands.”
Clearwater High School took a different tack, letting students know that they could walk out for 17 minutes without incurring any penalty. Administrators at Clearwater High School made that decision after discussions with administrators at other schools in the Ark Valley Chisholm Trail League that ended up taking the same approach.
Jennifer Clark, Chance’s mother, said that a school staff member observed Clearwater’s student-led protest from a distance, and that the school took steps to ensure a safe environment.
“Our administration had faith in our kids that it would be a peaceful, productive 17 minutes, and it was,” she said. “History has shown it’s not a good idea to take young people and tell them how they can and can’t express things. It’s better to support them and keep them safe, as long as they’re nonviolent.”
In Cheney, Bailey said there were more students who wanted to participate and either didn’t get their parents’ permission to walk out, or who didn’t take part because of peer pressure. While there was support from fellow students, there also was criticism, primarily on social media.
“A lot of us got backlash. A lot of it was from other students,” she said.
A post about Cheney’s walkout on a Facebook community page drew a homophobic slur from one commenter. That person’s comments were deleted by a page administrator, and commenting on the post was closed. Police were on hand for the walkout, but there were no problems.
Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the March 22 print edition of The Times-Sentinel. Subscribe to get stories like this sooner and for all your community news. Call 316-540-0500 today to get the paper at home next week.