A couple hundred Burlington High School students staged a walkout. They did so as part of an effort to raise awareness about the need to improve school safety and to put an end to the deadly school shootings that continue to plague the nation.
The most recent took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. A former student shot and killed 14 students and three adults, leaving millions across the country shaken and scared.
The walkout at Burlington High School began at 10:00 a.m Friday, March 2. Students either got in their cars to drive to the subsequent rally at the school district’s administrative building or they walked the 1.5 miles down Terrance Drive and along West Avenue.
The idea for the walkout came from Margaret Tillotson, 18. The senior at BHS said she started asking her classmates if they would participate, similar to anti-school violence marches and rallies being led by high school students across the country.
Tillotson said she felt someone had to act, even though it is not in her nature.
“I’m a very quiet, shy person,” said Tillotson after the rally. “I’ve always been that way. I never want to speak out.”
Tillotson said she felt the need to act because she still remembers how she felt in December 2012 when she learned of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
“The day that Sandy Hook happened, I spoke to my mom that night,” said Tillotson. “A lot of things changed for me and I knew something needed to change and after this most recent [shooting], I really wanted to take an initiative on it and if someone else wasn’t going to do it, I was going to because I was tired of staying quiet about it.”
Tillotson was among the first of the students who walked to the rally to arrive. She carried a large sign that posed the question, “Will this be my senior portrait?” written below a drawing of a crime scene outline of a body. The demonstrators chanted calls to end school violence.
It took about 30 minutes for the students who walked to arrive at the administrative building. The district provided them with a podium, a microphone, and a loudspeaker for the rally.
About a dozen students took the stage. While each spoke in their own style, their messages overlapped:
- School Districts Need To Offer Better Mental Health Care for Students
- Students Need to Speak Out against Bullying At All Times
- Students Need to Simply Be Nicer To Each Other
- School Districts Need to Provide Better Equipment to Help Secure Classrooms
- School Districts Need to Offer More Active Shooter Training for Students
That last point hit home for many of the speakers. They said over and over that it had been years since they participated in an ALICE training session.
ALICE is an active shooter training course that emphasizes Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate during a crisis situation. Tillotson emphasized that point during her time at the microphone, talking about how she asked a fellow student what they would do during an active shooter situation.
“The response I got was, ‘Honestly, I don’t know. I remember having an ALICE drill in middle school but it was kind of just like a fire drill. We walked out of school onto the property outside and we walked back inside the building a few minutes later after attendance was taken,’” said the unidentified student to Tillotson.
Tillotson and her fellow classmates called on the Burlington School District to offer more ALICE training and to allow them to be involved in the training "so they know what to do."
The message seemed to resonate with Superintendent Pat Coen, who said after the rally that he heard where the students were coming from and that it will be discussed with the school board. Coen said the faculty and staff in each building receive regular ALICE training but that could be expanded to include the students.
Coen also liked the idea of devoting an entire week to ALICE training and similar educational opportunities, such as Red Ribbon Week for drug prevention.
The rally focused on stopping school violence, but one speaker used the opportunity to address violence in the community. It's a subject that directly affected Cedric Peterson two years ago Friday.
Peterson told the crowd that it was on March 2, 2016 that he learned that his brother Kedarie Johnson was shot and killed. He talked about how people kept texting him that morning about his brother, but he did not want to believe them until he was finally told it was true.
“This can’t be happening, it can’t be true,” said Peterson, reflecting on that day. “But there it was right there, my brother shot and killed for nothing. Whoever knew something would happen like that, happen to a family in a community like ours and why?”
Peterson answered his own question: “Because a gun got in the hands of a bad person.”
Jorge Sanders-Galvez was sentenced to life in prison last year after being found guilty of murdering Kedarie Johnson. The First Degree Murder trial for his alleged accomplice, Jaron Purham, is scheduled to get underway this fall in Washington, Iowa.
Cedric Peterson concluded his speech at the rally by talking about the violence in Chicago, where he lived before his family moved to Burlington. He told the crowd that children living there are scared of being shot whenever they are awake, even when they walk to and from school.
“Something has to be done," said Peterson.
The walk-out/rally lasted nearly two hours.
Even though the rally featured repeated mentions of gun violence and many students wore orange bandanas to show their opposition to gun violence, there was no talk of banning guns or limiting who can purchase them.
Cody Lee, 18, is a senior at BHS who describes himself as an avid hunter and a gun enthusiast. He said he appreciated that gun control was not brought up, unlike other high school student-led marches and rallies held in other parts of the country.
Lee said he and his friends chose to attend the rally because they believe in improving school safety and stopping school violence. But he said they also support and defend the Second Amendment and their right to bear arms.
“We are here to let the public know that BHS has a large amount of students who support the preservation of the Second Amendment,” said Lee. “We are here to show the public that there are still young adults out there who are not afraid to say that guns are not the problem.”
Lee said he supports the U.S. Constitution and the rights it provides: the right to free speech, the right to assemble, the right to bear arms.
“The right to own and operate guns appropriately is just as much a right to speak freely,” said Lee. “The right to own and operate guns appropriately is just as much a right to walk out the cafeteria doors, march down West Avenue, come here, and speak our mind. They are equal. They are both our liberty.”
The crowd cheered loudly for Lee after he finished speaking. His discussion also seemed to prompt a "coming together" of the students in attendance.
Prior to the start of the rally, barricades were lined up to create two separate standing areas: one for First Amendment supporters and one for Second Amendment supporters. There were students on both sides of the barricades during the rally.
Once the speeches were over, Superintendent Pat Coen started encouraging the students to return to school with lunch getting underway. Before they left, though, Margaret Tillotson returned to the podium and grabbed the microphone.
She questioned the need to "divide" the crowd since everyone there wanted to end school violence. So she asked her schoolmates to remove the barricades so they could all stand together.
“Now look at this… we are all together,” said Tillotson. “We are all here standing for one purpose and this is what we are doing right here and we are doing a really good job showing that. No matter what point you stand from, no matter what opinion you have about it, we are all here for the same reason.”
Tillotson said after the rally that she will continue to speak out against school violence, even though she graduates in a few months. She said she will also continue to look for ways to make her classmates and future students at Burlington High School as safe as possible.
Additional Student Speeches