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Central Minn. teacher plans walkout over gun violence as part of national movement

BEMIDJI, Minn.—A central Minn. high school teacher wants students and educators to leave class next month to make a point about school violence and pressure lawmakers to address a decades-long rash of school shootings.

Gina Marie Bernard, an English teacher at Bemidji High School, is organizing a "Women's March Youth EMPOWER" walkout at 10 a.m. Wednesday, March 14, at the high school. The plan is to have students, teachers, school administrators and parents leave school buildings across the country for 17 minutes.

Bernard's plans are part of a nationwide push to address school shootings in the wake of one in Parkland, Fla., last week that left 17 people dead and renewed a longstanding debate over gun control, mental illness and the causes of mass gun violence. Students who survived the Parkland shooting plan to join a "March For Our Lives" protest on March 24 in Washington and a "National Day of Action Against Gun Violence in Schools" is scheduled for April 20, the 19th anniversary of a notorious school shooting in Columbine, Colo.

Bemidji is about 30 miles south of Red Lake, where a 15-year old shot 10 people to death and wounded five others before killing himself in 2005. Bernard said the walkout here next month is still in the initial planning stages—it could feature one or a handful of speakers or simply be a 17-minute moment of silence at the high school's flagpole.

The walkout is designed to honor the people murdered in Parkland and declare that students and staff shouldn't have to worry about being shot or killed on campus, she said.

"I obviously have my own personal opinion on the gun issue, but I want to just put that aside," said Bernard, who is a gun owner and hunter herself. "You can be from the farthest right to the farthest left, you should be able to come outside for 17 minutes and just honor those lives and be able to take the stand that guns have no place in our schools."

Bernard said she hopes local, state and federal decision-makers hear that message and take some kind of action to prevent more mass shootings.

The walkout could have repercussions. Bemidji Area Schools' employee handbook prohibits staff from using class time "to express an individual viewpoint or deal with matters unrelated to the course of study or regular school program." Bernard said she's not worried about potential discipline and wants to get high school and district leaders on board with the walkout, which she hopes will be positive and apolitical.

Jason Koester, president of the district's teachers union, declined to comment. He said he and other union leaders plan to put together a statement about the walkout early next week. Attempts to reach Jim Hess, the school district's superintendent, and Brian Stefanich, the high school's principal, were unsuccessful Monday.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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