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Northland students plan walkout to honor shooting victims

Helen Clanaugh, a sophomore at Denfeld High School, works on a poster Monday for the "March for our Lives” march planned for Wednesday at local and area high schools. Bob King /

Denfeld High School senior Autumn Pohl stayed home from school on March 5 following a school gun-violence threat made by another student.

She wasn't alone; she was one of more than half of Denfeld's 800-plus students who didn't attend class that day.

"It caused panic for a lot of people," Pohl said. "It hit close to home."

That's one reason she and students across the Northland — and throughout the country — plan to hold a walkout Wednesday to both honor the 17 killed at a Parkland, Fla., high school on Feb. 14, and to stand for stricter gun control laws. For 17 minutes beginning at 10 a.m., students will walk out of school and silently honor the slain students and faculty members of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

"This is something that students shouldn't have to worry about. ... They shouldn't have to lead the conversation in fighting for their own safety," Pohl said. "But I think it shows strength."

The walkout is the first of three national events planned in the wake of the mass shooting. On March 24, area students and other community members will take part in the Parkland student-led national "March for our Lives" march, with their own version starting at Historic Old Central High School at 5:30 p.m. A full-day national walkout is also planned for April 20, to honor those killed in the Columbine High School shootings in 1999.

University of Minnesota Duluth student Mary Franz is one of the organizers of the local efforts. She said the point isn't to advocate for the elimination of any rights, but to ensure students are safe when they go to school.

A country where teachers are put in a position to "take bullets" for their students "is not a country I want to live in," Franz said.

Locally, students from many schools, including Denfeld and East high schools, Lincoln Park and Ordean East middle schools, Proctor high and middle schools, Harbor City International School, North Star Academy, Marshall School and UMD are taking part.

Duluth Superintendent Bill Gronseth said students need signed permission from a parent or guardian to participate in the walkout in district schools, along with signing in and out of the office. He said the district supports the "civically engaged" students, but because the event isn't school-sponsored, it will be handled like other outside school events. Employees in Duluth schools will monitor the walkouts.

In Proctor, staff are helping its students organize the voluntary walkout, and parents will be notified of the event. At North Star, as well, staff will be monitoring the event.

Duluth Police Sgt. Mike LaFontaine said the department plans increased presence around Duluth schools taking part in the walkout.

Both of the Duluth district's high schools and Cloquet's middle and high school have been the target of threats since the Parkland massacre. In each instance, the student who made the threats is facing school discipline and possible criminal charges.

The Educator's School Safety Network typically tracks 10 school violence threats and incidents a day. Since Parkland, it's tracked more than 70 a day on average, with nearly every state in the country affected, according to the organization.

The most recent school shooting has kids on edge, said Denfeld sophomore Helen Clanaugh.

"Every day since Parkland, kids talk about it at school," she said, and Denfeld being threatened heightened fears. "It's scary to go to school."

But that's why the walkout matters, she said. Clanaugh was a child in 2012 when 26 children and school employees were killed in a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. She's grown up hearing about school shootings, she said, and as a teen, she sees the opportunity for activism that she and other students have before them.

"It's our duty to do this," Clanaugh said. "If we're not showing up for these things, nothing is ever going to change."

East senior James Abelsen said it's a stereotype that high school kids don't care about the world they are set to inherit.

"I think it's awesome we now have visible action coming from high schools across the world," he said.