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Guest view: Marion educators missed a valuable opportunity

  • Marion High School students at the indoors assembly on March 14.

    Marion High School students at the indoors assembly on March 14.
    Kristin Moore photo

By John Pfeifer
Guest columnist
updated: 4/4/2018 3:57 PM

At a few minutes after 10 a.m. on March 14, Marion High School senior Avery Baldwin sat on a bench near the American flag that flew high in the clear blue sky, outside the main entrance to the school.

Baldwin joined tens of thousands of others across the country who walked out of school, expressing solidarity with survivors of last month's school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, students who suggested the walkout as a way of drawing attention to the situation that allows regular mass shootings by those who purchase guns legally.

But in Marion, Illinois, Baldwin walked out alone. In Marion, Illinois, Baldwin sat by himself.

Inside the school, an assembly had been organized and was taking place in the gym. Marion High School Principal Joey Ohnesorge estimated that between 300 and 400 of the school's 1,100 students took part in the assembly that students were free to -- but not required to -- attend.

Ohnesorge said they "provided an alternative opportunity," something he thought "would turn this from a political agenda into something positive."

The assembly -- which he stressed was completely organized by a recently-created student advisory board, contained a video of the 17 students and teachers killed in Parkland, Florida with information about each of them.

Ohnesorge said "we also honored the two students who lost their lives in Marshall County (in a Jan. 23 school shooting in Benton, Kentucky).

Students also apparently shared personal stories with an anti-bullying theme, something Ohnesorge said was designed "to create a better climate." Having only recently left the assembly when we spoke on the 14th, he said, "it had a very positive result."

And so it seemed. A voluntary-attendance assembly with themes such as respect and dignity is a good thing. An assembly that allows students to leave their classrooms to hear heartfelt messages from their classmates and to remember other lives cut short by recent school shootings is commendable.

Just not at 10 a.m. on March 14.

Although saying the assembly itself was student-led, Ohnesorge did say "we formulated a plan" with input from the Illinois Principals Association and Marion school district administrators.

"We know our students well," he said, "and we wanted to show that we were united here at Marion High School."

In answer to my question -- asked several times -- "were students allowed to walk out of school?" Ohnesorge said "We discouraged that", later adding "of course they're allowed to exercise their First Amendment rights."

Several state police cars were in the high school parking lot Wednesday morning, and Baldwin said he felt he needed to avoid officers at one exit in order to leave the school.

"We didn't want to turn this into a day of protest," Ohnesorge said. In other words, our Marion school administrators decided to ignore the plea of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School survivors and sent a message to their own students that some form of easy, contrived "unity" was more important than their students' right to stand with those that survived school shootings and honor those who did not survive. Administrators encouraged following the herd; their very own herd.

They mistook the First Amendment "right of the people peaceably to assemble" with "our right to have students voluntarily attend our assembly."

Avery Baldwin said he thought the assembly was an attempt at misdirection, and he seemed content to sit by himself. He seemed to feel secure in his silent protest, even if no one would notice.

Ironically, on the morning of March 14 a PDF version of February's Marion High School newspaper was still on the school website, with a column written by senior student Jacob Janz. His column concluded:

"There's a lesson to be learned from the stubborn insistence shown by these (Stoneman) students. After years growing up and watching those in power utilize it for their own gain, enough is enough -- it's time to speak out, to take matters into your own hands. You have to make yourself heard. Only then does real change happen."

On March 14 Marion school administrators missed a national student-led opportunity to have their students celebrate the First Amendment by exercising the rights that it guarantees.

They not only missed an opportunity, they orchestrated "a very positive" event that chose to protect their own false definition of unity at the expense of their students' right to peaceably assemble.

• John Pfeifer is a veteran journalist from southern Illinois.