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Students to participate in walkout

Bismarck High School students planning to walk out of classes are, from left, Anna Roaldson, Katie Tschosik and her dog, Buster, Calvin Karalus, Sarah Vadnais and Kobe Ogoshi.

A group of Bismarck High School students plan to join other students across the country in the National School Walkout on March 14.

Sarah Vadnais, 17, a senior at BHS, is organizing the walkout to bring awareness to gun violence in the country and to advocate for changes to federal gun control laws.

When Vadnais heard about the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, besides being empathetic for the 17 people who lost their lives, she was angry.

"All of these school shootings, it just seems like an event as casual as going to the grocery store. It's something that just happens, that you expect and that's really deranged," she said.

She and her close friends — and an expanding group of other students at the school — are planning to walk out of class at 10 a.m. March 14. 

A branch of the Women's March, Youth Empower, is coordinating the school walkout and is calling for students, teachers, school administrators, parents and advocates to take part in a 17-minute walkout — one for each victim in the Florida shooting.

Instead, Vadnais said she would like the walkout to last for 18 minutes, one for each victim and one that is universal for all people murdered in mass shootings.

"It seems that sometimes in the wake of these tragedies that only the current and latest get remembered, but we want to be able to at least give them a minute and recognize all of them," she said.

Bismarck Public Schools Superintendent Tamara Uselman previously said the district will not stop students from participating in a walkout, but encourages students to get parent permission in order for their absence to be excused.

BHS Principal David Wisthoff said the school is taking "neutral" stance on the walkout and said that, closer to the day of the walkout, he will remind students that their parents should call the school to let them know their child will be absent.

"It's a right we have here to be able to protest things in the United States and students will — if they choose — have the opportunity to take advantage of that," he said.

Katie Tschosik, 18, said she plans to participate in the school walkout to show solidarity with the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.

"This is my chance to be an active participant," said Tschosik, a senior at BHS. "I was partially shocked that (the shooting) happened again .... It's just depressing that this keeps on happening."

Anna Roaldson, 17, a junior at BHS, was less surprised.

"For me, I didn't really feel anything right away, and I think that's what bothered me the most — the fact that it felt normal to me, that shouldn't be how I feel; I shouldn't feel that school shootings are normal in our society," said Roaldson, who also plans to join the walkout.

"I think it just shows that we definitely need change in our society right now. There's no reason that students should go to school in fear for their lives," she said.

Vadnais said she wants to bring attention to the perspectives of some youth in the Bismarck-Mandan community, who may be too reserved to speak out in a "red, conservative" state such as North Dakota.

"I want to bring light to more of the progressive viewpoints that some students here have," said Vadnais, pointing to students' passions "to create positive change."

Vadnais said she has yearned to be involved in social justice since a young age. The walkout will not be her first time protesting: She participated in the Women's March at the state Capitol in January 2017 and the People's Climate March in April 2017 in Washington, D.C.

"(Since I was young) I knew I had opinions and I knew I had a voice and I knew I wanted to just open up conversations with people," she said.

Vadnais' parents are supportive of her decision to partake in the walkout, and her mom has called the school to excuse her absence, she said.

Vadnais said she is a proponent for tighter restrictions on guns that can be sold, including background checks and outlawing "gun show loopholes" and guns sold illegally online. In addition, she said bump stocks should be banned.

She hopes the walkout in Bismarck will show legislators, particularly the North Dakota delegation, that students, who are also their constituents, have a voice that deserves to be heard, she said.

Vadnais said she and others are getting the word out at their school about the walkout, and she is confident others will join. On Monday, a student in the library asked her about the details of the walkout. The following day, another student in her wind ensemble class said they were interested but had been too afraid to coordinate a walkout.

"I feel that a lot of students don’t know that they have the power to do that (activism), or many they don’t care enough to do that, but maybe, just maybe, there are some students that do kind of care and they do have ideas but they feel kind of stuck or overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, because there’s so much out there," she said. "It would be nice to educate (them)."

(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)

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Education and Health Reporter