What you need to know about the National School Walkout on March 14

It's been nearly a month since Nikolas Cruz stormed into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School with an AR-15-style rifle and killed 17 students and faculty members.

In the weeks since the shooting in Parkland, Florida, survivors and their allies have turned their grief into activism and advocacy. Part of that effort is Wednesday's national school walkout.

Here in Illinois -- Chicago Public Schools says it will handle the walkouts on a case by case basis. Administrators will not help plan it, but in many schools students will be allowed to take part. However, students who do not return to class after the walkout will be given an unexcused absence.

Each Illinois school district is handling the walkout in its own way. Some say it they won't penalize students who participate, while others are threatening kids with disciplinary action.

  • Aurora East will not allow the walkout, but will have indoor activities
  • Aurora West will allow students to walkout onto the football field
  • Plainfield 202 will allow students to walkout only if they agree to meet with legislatures after school to move the issue forward
  • Glenbrook high schools are considering the walkout an unexcused absence

You are encouraged to check in with your school to find out the protocol for Wednesday's walkout.

Here's what you should know:

What is it?

The nationwide protest is both a memorial and protest action. Students and teachers across the United States will walk out of their schools and universities to honor the lives of the 17 people killed at Stoneman Douglas and press lawmakers to pass stricter gun control laws, according to EMPOWER, the group organizing the action.

Among their demands, participants want Congress to:

Ban assault weapons
Require universal background checks before gun sales
Pass a gun violence restraining order law that would allow courts to disarm people who display warning signs of violent behavior

When is it?

The walkout will take place on Wednesday, March 14, at 10 a.m. local time, and last for 17 minutes to honor the lives of those killed at Stoneman Douglas.

Who's participating?

The walkout is open to American students, teachers and staff. But the idea originated with EMPOWER, the youth branch of the Women's March, and it's the main national voice encouraging people to participate. The organization's website says more than 2,500 walkouts are planned.

EMPOWER is facilitating the walkout by providing local student organizers with tool kits to help them get started. The kits include a step-by-step guide to organizing a walkout, sample letters to administrators to request permission to participate and an explanation of students' rights.

The organizers have asked anyone not affiliated with a school to stay away from the walkouts, citing safety concerns. Otherwise, folks who want to express solidarity with the students should wear orange or walk out of their workplaces for 17 minutes, EMPOWER says.

How are schools reacting?

Many schools are allowing students to walk out of class for the 17 minutes and are providing additional security to ensure the actions are organized and safe.

However, some schools have forbidden participation, citing safety concerns and objections to disrupting class time.

Meanwhile, others are trying to strike a balance between interrupting the educational process and recognizing students' desires and rights to participate in civil discourse.

For example, Washoe County School District in Nevada is asking its students to pursue other forms of civic engagement, like "tying ribbons on the school fences or observing moments of silence," according to CNN affiliate KOLO.

Meanwhile, school officials with Chesterfield County Schools in Virginia have said their students can either hold a student-led memorial service for the victims of the Parkland shooting or hold a student-led assembly about school safety, CNN affiliate WTVR reported.

Can students be punished?

Students could face disciplinary action if they join the walkout without the permission of school administrators.

Schools have threatened to slap students with unexcused absences, docked grades or suspensions if they choose to join the walkout. Some school districts that originally took that stance have since backed off and have tried to compromise.

The Needville Independent School District in Texas said several weeks ago that anyone participating in walkouts or protests would be suspended for three days.

What are students' rights?

While students do have a First Amendment right to protest, those whose schools forbid participation in the walkout could still legitimately face consequences.

Vera Eidelman, a fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union, said schools could punish students if they miss class, even if they're joining the walkout. "But what the school can't do," Eidelman said, "is discipline students more harshly because they are walking out to express a political view or because school administrators don't support the views behind the protest."

Basically, the punishment students receive can't be any worse than what they would have otherwise received for skipping class on any other day.

What's next?

After the walkout, student activists and their supporters will turn their attention to the "March for Our Lives" protest planned for Saturday, March 24. The main event will be held in Washington, with satellite marches planned across the United States and overseas.

"March for Our Lives" was started by survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and aims to pressure Congress to pass stricter gun control laws.

The Network for Public Education has called for another observance to take place on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting. The organization is calling for people to take their own action to bring attention to school safety on a "National Day of Action Against Gun Violence in Schools."

Chicago Republican Party threatening to sue

The Chicago Republican Party has threatened to take action against Chicago Public Schools if they allow elementary students to take part.

The Chicago GOP organization is pointing to CPS' own rules when it comes to participation of employees in demonstrations and protests.

“High school students have first amendment rights like anyone else and if they want to do this on their own that’s fine. Our objection is twofold. First, it shouldn’t be done with elementary school students and secondly it shouldn’t be done by teachers and principals. It’s not appropriate to be engaging in political indoctrination. High school kids on their own? Fine,” Chris Cleveland, Chicago GOP, said.

WGN reached out for comment from Chicago Public Schools as well as the CPS Inspector General. WGN has not yet heard back about the potential lawsuit.