SOUTH SIOUX CITY | Hundreds of Siouxland students abandoned classes on Wednesday morning for 17 minutes, one minute for each victim of the school shooting that occurred exactly one month ago in Parkland, Florida.
Students at Sioux City, South Sioux City, Sergeant Bluff-Luton, Dakota Valley and many other area districts participated in the #Enough National School Walkout to End Gun Violence.
At 10 a.m., 25 South Sioux City High School students walked out the front door and then sat silently in a circle after junior Sydney Comstock spoke briefly against school violence. Comstock urged the others to take "direct action," by registering to vote if they will turn 18 by the November general election.
"We need to be heard. We need to put in power people who have views like ours... I don't want our younger siblings to have to deal with this," Comstock said.
She didn't speak about gun control during the time with other students, but in an interview said, "We need more gun restrictions. I believe the AR-15 should be banned," citing the semi-automatic rifle used by 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz in the Parkland shooting.
Of the 1,200 students enrolled at South Sioux City High School, several hundred opted for an assembly in the school gymnasium to remember the Parkland victims, while hundreds more stayed in their classroom and talked about the issue with teachers. Superintendent Todd Strom said he saw an interesting discussion in a shop class, where pupils pointed out that being more socially inclusive of others might reduce shootings.
Luis Guerrero, a South Sioux City sophomore, attended the assembly in the gym, where 17 white balloons were released one at a time, as information about each of the victims at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was read.
"It is respect. You can't walk out, it would be disrespect to the kids who died," Guerrero said.
One of the people who spoke at the assembly, sophomore Julissa Cancino, said it was important to remember those killed in Florida.
Afterwards, Cancino said she prefers stricter gun laws. She said there have been numerous unfortunate school shootings with a number of people killed, and posited that the reason this shooting has resulted in such student action nationally is that they are following the lead of several outspoken students who survived the Parkland shooting.
South Sioux City was one of the few school districts that gave journalists permission to cover the remembrances. The Sioux City and Sergeant Bluff-Luton districts both barred the public from their campuses. That came as in the midst of Sunshine Week, a national, non-partisan effort to highlight the role of open government and freedom of information.
“For the safety of students, the school grounds will not be open to outside parties during the walkout," Sioux City schools spokeswoman Mandie Mayo said in a statement. "Media cannot be on school grounds during the walkouts."
Sergeant Bluff-Luton Superintendent Rod Earleywine said police were posted at the school for safety reasons during the student-led demonstrations.
Later Wednesday, Sioux City Superintendent Paul Gausman confirmed there were "respectful" walkouts to advocate for stricter gun control at all six middle and high schools -- East, North and West. There were reports of several hundred students walking out at each school.
"As a school district, we respect that students have a voice. When a collective group, like our student body, takes interest in national politics to help make a difference in the world, we as a district support them," Gausman said.
The American Civil Liberties Union, in an open letter Monday, urged the nation's public school officials to "allow students to demonstrate peacefully without punishment ...and ensure that policies regarding on-campus speech allow ample room for public discussion."
None of the metro schools the Journal contacted Wednesday said they planned to quash student-led walkouts.
At Dakota Valley High School, several dozen students walked out of class and sat in front of the school in North Sioux City. Two students read aloud the names of all those who had perished at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
Maggie Faldmo, a Dakota Valley sophomore and student council member, said students felt a need to say something about the phenomenon of school shootings in the U.S.
"I think that all the students here are taking part in this because, we're like upset with how things are right now and we want change, and I think that no change is going to happen unless you try to make a statement," Faldmo said.
Faldmo said the demonstrators would like authorities to "find ways to prevent" school shootings.
"I think everyone's really upset with the amount of shootings in our country, and I think they want to see changing gun laws," she said.
Word of the walk-out spread throughout the school prior to the march, she said.
"Actually I think most of us just kind of new about it from like the news, and social media," she said. "And we, in my grade, we have a group message of a lot of girls, and we just like all kind of talked about it, and kind of agreed that we would all take part in it."
Not everybody took part in the walk-out, however; a number of Dakota Valley students remained in their classrooms, Faldmo said.
Outdoors, the crowd of students replied in unison with a resounding "Yeah!" when asked if their parents would approve of their participation in the walkout.
Fellow Dakota Valley demonstrator Carson Gunderson walked out of his Spanish III class to take part. He said legislative fixes like age restrictions and improved background checks could be implemented to help address the issue of gun violence.
"I think too many kids are dying from shootings," he said.
Shortly after the walkouts ended, several metro students posted pictures and videos on social media.
A student through the @Marcelo account shared Twitter photos and videos of the walk out at North High School, where more than 100 people were observed walking, some carrying signs. In one tweet, he wrote, "Enough is enough, we went to school to got education not to get killed. Sioux North high school protests no more School shooters."
Edgar Dulena was the sole boy in the group of 25 South Sioux City students who walked out. The junior said he expected bigger numbers than two percent of the student body. Dulena said he spoke with other boys about participating in the protest, but many didn't like what they saw as an anti-gun element to the event.
"They said they didn't want their guns taken away," he said.
Dulena, on the other hand, prefers more gun restrictions.
"A violent kid won't show up and kill 17 students with their fists," he said.
Dulena said he previously attended elementary school in Chicago, where students had to pass through metal detectors to enter the school.
"It was a pretty good system for keeping guns out of school," Dulena said.
No walkouts or student-led demonstrations took place Wednesday at Bishop Heelan or Siouxland Christian, but the two private schools in Sioux City addressed the renewed national focus on school shootings in different ways.
About 150 Siouxland Christian students in grades 6-12 discussed the issue with staff and teachers during the school's twice-weekly chapel meeting on Tuesday, principal Steve Peters said. The school prayed for the families of the shooting victims and for elected officials to have the wisdom to find effective solutions to gun violence in schools.
"We know we have a large God that can take care of this and we can take it to him, " Peters said.
Heelan High School has scheduled an assembly on Thursday led by Chad Sheehan, a retired Sioux City police officer who trains local schools, businesses, hospitals and places of worship on how to evacuate, hide or fight back during an active shooter event.
The Journal's Dave Dreeszen contributed to this story.