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Young Student Activists Hold 'March For Our Lives' Rally For Gun Reform

Peter Medlin
Downers Grove "March for our Lives" rally

Student activists from several northern Illinois "March For Our Lives" chapters are calling for changes to the nation's gun laws.

As a crowd gathered in a Downers Grove park, the students took the stage. Some are in high school, others are still in junior high. The crowd also was made up of students, along with their parents and older members of the community. Just behind them, on the other end of the park, younger children chase each other around a playground.

The students in the group are coming together from different schools and cities to raise awareness of gun violence and advocate for legislation to increase regulation. "March For Our Lives" is a national organization started by students in Parkland, Florida, in the wake of the mass shooting that killed 17 of their high school classmates last February.

There have been 104 mass shootings in America in 2019; mass shootings meaning firearm incidents with multiple victims. There have been just over 115 days in 2019.

The crowd held up signs during the speeches. One read, "Am I next?" Another took at lighter tone using a meme referencing The Office TV show to rip congressional inaction.

Credit Peter Medlin
Student shows off "The Office" themed protest sign at a rally.

Four local "March For Our Lives" chapters were represented at the rally. One of the event's primary organizers is Peyton Arens. He's the co-director of the Naperville chapter. He also happens to be 14 years old and nearing the end of eighth grade.

His chapter is the first in the country founded by junior high students. He says "March For Our Lives" was happy to have him on board despite his age, but it does make event planning a bit more complex.

"We got the grant from 'March For Our Lives,' which was so exciting. But it was really hard working with the city, especially us being minors," he said. "We had to have like a huge chain of communication because adults had to sign off and everything but then they didn't know the answers to everything."

The rally featured speeches from other student activists and from a member of Moms Demand Action. Students performed songs and poems. Along with that, U.S. Rep. Sean Casten (D-6) delivered a speech.

One of the student activists who spoke at the event was Casten's daughter Gwen, a ninth-grader in Downers Grove.

Credit Peter Medlin
Students sign up to join the push to change gun laws

The younger Casten talked about specific legislation that she hopes gets passed in Congress.

"Call your representatives or meet with them. Tell them how you want them to vote. Tell them that we need universal background checks. Tell them that we need to extend the waiting period. Tell them that we need the assault weapons ban to pass. Tell them that we need the Violence Against Women Act to pass as well," she said. "Tell them that you are their constituent and they represent you and they need to do so."

She is also co-director of the Downers Grove chapter of "March For Our Lives."

"So my dad is in Congress and I think it's been nice because I've been able to learn a lot from him about how to, you know, kind of do this type of stuff," said Casten. "And throughout the campaign and stuff, it was really interesting canvassing, the amount that human interaction can actually make an effect is actually really cool because it really can make a change."

She says the reaction to her activism has been really positive. However, Arens says his got off to a rocky start, especially when he talked about it on social media.

"When I first started with it, I was attacked on Twitter, saying that it was child abuse that my parents are forcing me to get involved in their affairs and in their beliefs," said Arens. "And that happened while I was tweeting about a rally that I was at. And I was like, 'My parents don't even know I'm here. Like they have no idea what's going on today.'"

Credit Peter Medlin
The crowd takes a photo at the end of the rally.

The students who spoke often returned to the idea that it's hard to focus and give your best in school when they're constantly thinking about whether something might happen to them. A local counselor talked about the impact that sort of stress can have on a learning environment.

"The other day, one of the secretaries accidentally clicked on the lockdown alarm. It was turned off in like three seconds," said Arens. "I was already like in tears, like, I had no idea. It was a passing period, there were people everywhere. It was just awful. And there were like a few kids that started laughing, and the thought never even went through my head that it could be a false alarm. Because if it can happen in Parkland, if it could happen in Columbine, why wouldn't ours be real?"

Another topic often touched on was the importance of voting.

Rep. Casten took his turn to speak near the end of the rally. He said he had to start with an apology. That's because he knew even thought he and the House of Representatives advanced gun-related bills like the "Violence Against Women Act" and extending waiting periods, those bills were still stuck in the Senate. So nothing had actually been accomplished yet.

He then turned his focus back to voting, as well.

"Know that you have my support in Congress, and if you could send some more backup to the next session I'd really appreciate it," said Casten.

As for what's next for these students? They say they keep getting asked that.

"Our biggest thing is we don't want to lose momentum," said Arens. "So we don't want to have a rally and get everybody excited and then just be lost for a few weeks and then be like, 'Hey, guys, we're back.' We want to after this be like, 'Thanks for coming, here's what's next -- here's our next meeting, here's what we need from you guys.'"

The groups are also looking to expand their presence, pushing it out from their schools and further into their communities.