High school students walk out at Sandburg, Stagg and Reavis to support cease-fire in Gaza

Hundreds of students walked out of their south suburban high schools Friday afternoon to bring attention to the ongoing violence in the Middle East and express support for a permanent cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

A heavy police and staff presence locked down the perimeters of William Claude Reavis, Amos Alonzo Stagg and Carl Sandburg high schools during the midday demonstrations, preventing media and outside individuals from being on campus. But when the 30-minute demonstration ended at Sandburg in Orland Park, several students with close ties to the violence in the Middle East walked off campus.

“We’re told to be quiet, we’re told we can’t talk about anything that’s happening in Gaza,” said Rayanne Gaghamin, a Sandburg junior who helped set up the protest. “All the teachers are hush, we get no comfort or space in school. This was kind of our way of saying, ‘Hey, you know, we’re here.’”

Students who participated will face a “natural repercussion” of being marked absent in class, according to Jennifer Waterman, director of communications for High School District 230 which includes Stagg and Sandburg. Officials learned of the plans earlier in the week and developed a safety plan, Waterman said.

Gaghamin said she and other leaders of the demonstration notified the school of their plans ahead of time because without the school’s involvement there could be more significant repercussions and students might not participate.

Gaghamin said Sandburg Principal Derrick Smith prevented students from marching at the front of the school and required them to stay on the football field.

This prevented visibility, as the football field is more than100 yards from public property and behind several layers of fencing, making the Palestinian flags barely visible and their chants inaudible.

“Free, Free Palestine!” sounded like a whisper next to the traffic and any calls to action were indiscernible.

Still, Neveen Muza,16, said she can understand why the school took that approach. Safety is a priority and the school would be held responsible if something occurred, she said. But what she said frustrates her the most are recent experiences with teachers and classmates that trigger a feeling of loneliness for students with ties to Palestine.

During a recent ecology class, Muza and her friend Shaymaaa Schuaibi, 16, had to pick a country to do a project on. They picked Palestine but said they were told they had to choose somewhere else because Palestine isn’t a country.

“We never got an apology whatsoever,” said Muza.

Beyond the words of one teacher, issues in the Middle East have been handled differently by the school than other issues around the globe, 16-year-old Shaymaa Shuaibi explained.

“When everything happened in Ukraine, a lot of the kids got support, there were emails sent at home, there were things said on the intercom,” Shuaibi said. “Kids were supported through that whole thing, there were teachers having conversations with the students, saying things like ‘Oh, I am here for you, I feel for your people.’”

Since Oct. 7, when Hamas attacked 1,200 Israelis and took hundreds more hostage, Israel responded by airstrikes that have killed 27,840 Palestinians, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

In contrast, this war has not been discussed in classrooms.

“Whenever a kid brought anything up in class, a teacher would say ‘You can’t talk about this now,’” Shuaibi said.

Muza was born in the region and has a home there she has visited every summer with her family. She knows people who have died in the war. Gaghamin also has been to the region and she and Shuaibi have family and friends who are still there, some fleeing to Jordan.

“We felt no support,” Shuaibi said.

About 100 students walked out of each of the three schools, according to witnesses and participants. Students at Reavis said it was because they feel what’s going on is not being discussed enough.

At Stagg High School in Palos Hills, a student with a megaphone led the group in chants calling out “Free, Free Palestine.” But access to all of the schools was similarly restricted.

“Students do not shed their constitutional rights, including their rights to free speech, at the schoolhouse gates and may engage in acts of protest within certain parameters so long as they are not disruptive to the learning environment and cause safety concerns,” Waterman said in her email.

For the protest leaders from the three schools and Chicago Youth for Justice, raising awareness for the toll the war is having on civilians and pressuring politicians to demand a cease-fire are part of the mission.

But the students at Sandburg High School in Orland Park said they have another motive: get the attention of one man in particular.

Orland Park’s Mayor Keith Pekau recently made comments at a Village Board meeting that have been criticized by Arab-Americans who support a resolution calling for a cease-fire in Gaza.

“I hope you see this,” said Schuaibi. “If the youth is coming at you, you know you did something wrong.”

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