Almost 300 students gathered outside of Niles West High School to protest Wisconsin's anti-union legislation on Thursday. Fearing the bill may have a domino effect and ultimately hit their hometown, the teens walked out of class in support of collective bargaining.
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"This is obviously something that the government and big businesses are pushing, but the people don't want it at all and I know Illinois doesn't want it," said Alex Knorr, 18, a senior at Niles West and an organizer of the event.
"So, this is kind of the students' way of saying we don't want [the anti-union bill] in Illinois and we don't want it in our school," she added.
Hundreds of students lined up in front of Oakton Street and held signs that read, "Union Rights = Human Rights" and "Care about our teachers like you care about your kids." Truck drivers and other motorists honked their horns in support of the protest.
Many students cheered at the top of their lungs, while others broke out into dance to stir up the crowd. Meanwhile, teachers oversaw the event, making sure the demonstration was safe and peaceful.
The idea of a walkout came after liberal filmmaker Michael Moore applauded Wisconsin high school students for organizing a mass walkout on March 10 to protest the anti-union legislation, which Republican Gov. Scott Walker enacted by signing the next day. However, unlike the students at the state capitol in Madison, Niles West's demonstration called for all attendees to go back to their final class at about 2:40 p.m.
"If we don't go back to class then it won't be as strong of a statement," Knorr said. "People will say we just wanted to ditch class and that's not the case."
The demonstration began around 2 p.m.--or eighth period, the second to last class of the school day--and lasted for about 40 minutes. Students were told by teachers that if they cut class to attend the protest, they could expect a detention slip the following day.
Niles West Principal Kaine Osburn said students would have to serve a detention for skipping class.
"I think some students are legitimately demonstrating in civil disobedience," Osburn said as he observed the protest. "They love their teachers, had great experience with their teachers, and I'm sympathetic.
"But I do support what the school board [and] the elected representatives of the community are trying to do to make the school better," he added.
Eric Krikorian, 18, a senior at Niles West who also helped organize the demonstration, said Facebook was an excellent tool in raising awareness among fellow students about the walkout. He noted that in less than a week, more than 200 students said they would be attending the rally.
"I don't think detention will be a problem," Krikorian said jokingly. "But with this, it would be nice to show the rest of the nation that we're in Illinois and what's happening in Wisconsin isn't going to happen here."
Krikorian, whose mother works at a nearby public school, said Wisconsin's anti-union law is something that really hits home. The controversial statute places limits of the collective bargaining rights on public employees in the state. It is scheduled to take effect March 26, but the Dane County district attorney filed a court challenge over the measure this week.
"My mom works at a school and is in the initial stages of starting a union," Krikorian said. "She was talking to me last night to say how happy she is that we are doing this, because it's really almost a fight for power."
Yet for others, fear of the anti-union law spreading isn't the only reason they attended the demonstration. Recent talks of layoffs at District 219, which includes Niles North, and neighboring schools has some parents worried that administrators don't appreciate their teachers and that more communication between teachers and students is needed.
Ilene Collins, a Skokie resident and mother of two, said most people move into District 219 because of the excellent schools. But with the pending layoffs, she said she is concerned the decision will have a negative effect on the community.
"I have two students who are attending [Niles West]," Collins said. "I am proud of them. Not only do I support them, I am proud that they are willing--like so many of the other students here--to make a statement, to feel strongly about something.
"They could have just said, 'This doesn't affect them.' But it does and it will," she noted.
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