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With School Walkouts, Ohio Students Get Crash Course In Political Organizing

Nick Evans
Students walking the track at South High School.

Last weekend, Gayathri Mudigonda, Meena Jani and Noah Spaulding-Schecter gathered in a house to talk about why it had to happen—why, in just a few days, they would get up and leave class for exactly 17 minutes.

“At Thomas Worthington last week we practiced a barricade drill, which is something new,” Mudigonda said. “So basically we took—we moved desks and bookshelves and all of our seats in front of the door, and then we saw that our doors open outwards.”

Mudigonda, a high school junior in Worthington, helped organize the walkout at her school on Wednesday, one of over 3,000 such protests around the country, initiated in part by the Women's March.

But the protests weren’t just spontaneous events. They were weeks in the making.

Jani and Spaulding-Schecter are juniors too, but they go to Killborne High School in Worthington. Like thousands of students around the country, these Central Ohio students want lawmakers to take action on gun control and school safety.

“I think that we all have at least one goal, and that’s just we want to make things safer," Spaulding-Schecter explained. "And we all have the same general idea on how to do that, and that’s just to limit guns.”


Spaulding-Schecter, Mudigonda, and Jani (left to right) meeting with student organizers from other schools.
Credit Nick Evans
Spaulding-Schecter, Mudigonda, and Jani (left to right) meeting with student organizers from other schools.

That's much less pointed than national organizers’ demands: universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, a gun violence restraining order and fewer military style weapons in the hands of police.

Spaulding-Schecter explained they don’t want to shut out people who they might disagree with on other issues, when there might be room for common ground on guns.

And Jani admitted that might mean progress is slow.

“You know, unfortunately, that’s how change often happens—is in small steps,” Jani said. “And I think if you actually only include people with a very specific set of opinions it’s only going to be a small number and then even the most minuscule of changes is not going to happen.”

On Tuesday, after classes finished at Olentangy Orange High School in Lewis Center, two dozen students took over a couple of cafeteria tables, spreading out cardboard and squeezing big blobs of paint onto paper plates—making signs for the next day's walkout.

Credit Nick Evans

Junior Zaida Jenkins and senior Jackson Schiefelbein took the lead organizing role. For Jenkins, activism is a bit of a departure from her political posture in the past.

“It was strictly personal,” Jenkins said. “I didn’t like to share my beliefs—I couldn’t even imagine me doing something like this now.”

For many students like her, though, recent school shootings like last month's in Parkland, Florida, spurred her to action.

“But after the stories were breaking,” she went on, “and we were seeing all the videos on twitter—I just remember texting my mom, and being like, 'This is it.' Like, I can’t just stand idly by anymore, this is the end, I have to do something.”

And they’re already planning for what happens after the walkout. Like many organizers, they’re planning a voter registration drive, but Shiefelbein explained they’ve got another idea, too.

“We were going to try to collaborate with our district-wide Model United Nations program to do sort of a speaking workshop with that,” Schiefelbein said. “Because through that program we work on—one of our main components is diplomatic literacy. So just making sure that you can be formal and express yourself clearly while also being respectful.”

Wednesday morning was cold and snowy on Columbus’s South Side, but that didn’t stop almost 100 South High School students from walking out of their classes and onto the football field. After reciting the names of the victims who died exactly a month before at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, the organizers led their fellow students once around the track, chanting slogans as they went.

Credit Nick Evans / WOSU

Back inside, organizers Serina Dweh and Katie Somphantabasouk—both juniors—said they’re optimistic and they believe lawmakers are listening.

“Yes I do, because it’s many schools across the nation," Dweh said. "Our district even made it an official day—Safer Together Day.”

“And the amount of voices combined,” Somphantabasouk added, “it will bring a huge change into everything that’s happening.”

Students at nearly two dozen schools in the Columbus area participated in the walkouts. Two more widespread demonstrations are planned on March 24 and April 20.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.