‘Our voice needs to be recognized’: Nebraska, Iowa students call for action on school violence

‘Our voice needs to be recognized’: Nebraska, Iowa students call for action on school violence
About 200 students gathered outside Bellevue East on Wednesday to protest gun violence. A small group of students recited the names of the Parkland, Florida, shooting victims. (World-Herald News Service)

Outrage over the Parkland, Florida, massacre fueled student walkouts and demonstrations across Nebraska and Iowa on Wednesday as youth added their voices to the national debate over how to stop school violence.

Although their messages varied, and a majority of students did not join in the walkouts, many students who participated expressed a common unifying theme: Something must be done.

The students made it clear that they want to be heard and that politicians should take notice.

Anabelle Wagner, a junior who helped lead a walkout of about 200 students at Bellevue East High School, said that although students can’t vote, “our voice needs to be recognized, and it deserves a place at the table.”

The demonstrations ratcheted up the pressure on lawmakers and policymakers to come up with solutions.

But some students urged their peers to reach out with love and compassion to troubled and bullied students.

Asked about the walkouts, Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., said it’s important that policymakers listen to what students are saying.

“They have a very legitimate voice,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I agree with everything on there.”

In particular, Bacon disagrees with those pushing to renew a ban on assault weapons — that was among the goals of the #Enough National School Walkout, which inspired many of Wednesday’s local events.

“Those who are really honest — they want to take away semi-automatic weapons, and I think that is a violation of Second Amendment rights,” Bacon said. “But our students have a right to voice that. I welcome their participation in this, and it’s part of the discussion.”

Participation in the walkouts, observed by reporters or reported by the bigger Omaha area school districts, looked like this:

» Millard Public Schools: Roughly 100 to 150 students at Millard North, 75 at Millard West and 50 at Millard South. Officials reported a “smattering” of participation at the district’s middle schools, with close to 100 at Central Middle School.

» Bellevue Public Schools: About 200 at Bellevue East; 200 at Bellevue West and about 50 at each of three middle schools.

» Elkhorn Public Schools: About 30 at Elkhorn South and 50 at Elkhorn High. No walkouts were reported at the middle schools.

» Gretna Public Schools: Students held an alternative event to recognize and show respect for the victims and provide encouragement to one another.

» Westside Community Schools: About 15 Westside Middle students walked out; some student council members organized a sit-in at the high school instead of a walkout. About 200 students participated.

» Ralston Public Schools: About 100 at Ralston High School; 10 at the middle school.

» Council Bluffs Community Schools: About 100 at Thomas Jefferson; 300 at Abraham Lincoln.

Students in the Omaha Public Schools, Lincoln Public Schools and Papillion-La Vista Community Schools are on spring break this week.

Walkouts were also reported at schools in Kearney, Waverly, Norfolk and Grand Island.

Wednesday’s events were timed to coincide with walkouts planned across the U.S. and around the world. Students were asked to leave class at 10 a.m. local time for 17 minutes — one minute for each victim of the Feb. 14 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Nebraska school officials reported that the walkouts generally followed that recipe and came off without incident, with students returning to class after the observances.

Omaha area Catholic schools, in many cases, held prayer services instead of walkouts.

More than 200 students and staff gathered at Creighton University for a rally. Organizers read names of schools hit by gun violence in the past 20 years, as the crowd stood in silence in front of St. John’s Church on campus.

Ed Nunez, a Creighton senior who helped organize the rally, said young people need to take the lead in pushing for safer schools.

Organizers urged those in attendance to contact Nebraska’s congressional delegation and call for legislation that will make schools safer.

Isaac Fish, a Creighton junior who attended the rally, said it’s important to keep the issue in front of the public and politicians.

“These things happen, then people forget about them,” he said.

In some cases, students emphasized that they didn’t want their events to be political.

Student leaders at Bellevue East urged their peers to spread love, especially reaching out to classmates who are troubled or bullied.

Junior Joseph Rousseau, a student leader, said the perpetrators in school shootings have often been bullied or experienced troubling times in their lives.

Rousseau said students don’t want to see their school become another statistic when it can be prevented by changing the culture.

“What we all came to agreement on is that we want to see our own community start to change from this bad, toxic side to this loving, caring ‘We’re here for you,’ ” he said.

Some Bellevue East students cried and exchanged hugs. After about 20 minutes, they went back into the school.

World-Herald staff writers Erin Duffy, Joseph Morton, Michael O’Connor and Nikoel Hytrek contributed to this report, which also includes material from the World-Herald News Service.

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