Normal Community High School

Local Students Join National Walkout To Address Gun Violence

The Pantagraph

Photo by Mary Aplington

Photo by Mary Aplington

Students at several Central Illinois schools joined their peers across the nation Wednesday by walking out of their classrooms to send a message about gun violence.

Photo by Diane Peterson Mather

Photo by Diane Peterson Mather

The nation-wide walkout began at 10 a.m. and lasted for 17 minutes.

The event was organized to occur exactly one month after 17 students and faculty were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., by a former student wielding a semi-automatic rifle.

In wake of the massacre, students have risen to be some of the loudest activists for stricter gun control.

Hundreds of students at Normal Community High School, Normal West High School and Bloomington High School participated in the peaceful protest. Several schools in neighboring communities also joined.

“I am so moved by the students in our community,” Bloomington-Normal Not In Our School coordinator Mary Aplington said. “Their voices, their actions, their messages today have power and inspiration beyond their schools.

At NCHS, nearly 400 students left their classrooms and crowded on the sidewalk behind the building. Their event was organized by the Not In Our School group, Social Studies Club and Peace and Justice Club.


Senior Faithe Wenger spoke to the crowd, reminding them of the 2012 shooting that happened in a classroom at NCHS.  The shooter was a student. No one was injured and the building was evacuated.

“NCHS remembers. Our town remembers. When the practice tornado siren goes off the first Tuesday of every month, we shake,” said Wenger. “For the first 10 seconds our hearts drop to our feet. For that short period of time, we feel the fear that was present at Sandy Hook, Parkland, Las Vegas and Orlando. How can we make government feel that?”

Junior Tristan Bixby told the crowd how her brother was held hostage in the classroom at NCHS by the shooter six years ago.

 “I consider myself lucky. I still get to see my brother every day. I get to be a part of his life. That is not always the case in this country. It terrifies me to think that thought could have been a reality within my own community,” said Bixby.

As for future change, Bixby said “start small.”

 “Talk to leaders, send an email, sit down and have those difficult conversations. Find kids who don’t have anyone and be there for them,” said Bixby. “Before today we were just kids, but we are the future and we will be the change.”

As she encouraged her peers to vote and speak up, Wenger’s hand shook but her voice was strong.

 “We still need stricter background checks, need to raise the age to 21 for all guns, not just rifles, we need to focus on mental illness and protecting student lives and all lives,” said Wenger. “This is just the beginning for us, the generation of change.”

The students ended the event by chanting “spread love, not hate, we just want to graduate."

For the final minute of the walkout, the crowd took a moment of silence to honor students killed by gun violence.

Nearly 300 students at Kingsley Junior High School also participated.

Before the walkout, Kingsley eighth-grader, Sam Gathright, said she planned to hold a sign and have conversation with her peers to understand their views on the issues.

She said she chose to join the national walkout because “our generation has some of the most lives lost due to school violence and suicide.

Normal Community junior Ajitesh Muppuru, 16, organized students Wednesday in a demonstration in support of stricter gun laws following the deaths of 17 people in a school shooting in Parkland, Fla. on Feb. 14.

I’m not so much thinking about me and my peers, but for every generation after me that will benefit from my actions,” she said.

Students at BHS participated in a different way, leaving their classrooms to line the halls and stay silent for 17 minutes.

"It was a somber mood," said Fiona Ward Shaw, junior. "There's a time and a place for sitting in remembrance but we have to take action through legislative changes."

Freshman Jaylyn Haynes said it is "inconsiderate" for older generations to not take the students seriously because of their age.

"You're never too young to learn and express an opinion. That's one of the reasons behind so many of these shootings; people feel like they have to go to horrible lengths to get attention because they feel their voices aren't being heard," said Haynes.

School officials in some parts of the country have told students they will be disciplined for participating in the walkout.

But superintendents at Bloomington District 87 and McLean County Unit 5 said students weren't disciplined for practicing free speech without seriously disrupting the school day.

Solidarity Concert For Puerto Rico January 22


A Solidarity With Puerto Rico Benefit Concert, featuring local musicians and performers from Normal Community High School and the Bloomington-Normal community, is scheduled 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. January 22 at Normal Theater to raise funds for hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico.

The event is hosted by Illinois State University Latin American and Latino/a Studies. In September 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated the island and NCHS juniors Keajia “Keke” Hardin and Anabelle Chinski wanted to do something to help. For their community service project, they reached out to ISU's Professor Maura Toro-Morn to organize this event.

All proceeds will be donated to the Puerto Rico Agenda, a not-for-profit group in Chicago sending aid to relief and rebuilding efforts on the island.

To learn more about Puerto Rico and the effects of hurricane Maria, there will be a teach-in -- free and open to the public -- on Friday, January 19, at 3 p.m. in the Escalante Room of Hewett Manchester. Puerto Rico, its unique history with the US, and the effects of Maria on the island, are topics.

Presenters will include Professors Maura Toro-Morn and Yojanna Cuenca-Carlino of ISU, Professor Daynali Flores-Rodriguez and Krista Cardona of Illinois Wesleyan University, and Stephanie Rodriguez, ISU student and reporter for The Daily Vidette. It will be moderated by Prof. Juliet Lynd, Acting Director of LALS. Sponsored by the Latin American and Latino Studies Program.

Official figures show that, of the island’s 1.5 million customers, just 900,000 have had their power restored. Businesses continue to struggle and many schools remain closed. Puerto Rico has received limited federal support amid controversial statements by President Trump about the U.S. territory and its people.

The New York City Department of Buildings sent a 14-member team to inspect damage to homes and government buildings after Hurricane Maria slammed into the island. Inspectors assessed nearly 5,100 structures, helping local officials understand the magnitude of the destruction.

Dozens of inspectors swarmed the streets of New York City in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, filling out piles of paperwork as they assessed the damage.

Over 80,000 buildings were inspected, but city officials realized the process could have been completed more efficiently. So, in late 2016, the Department of Buildings began using technology that allowed inspectors to file reports from the field using a smartphone or tablet.

The technology was used in a disaster zone for the first time a few months ago, in Puerto Rico.

“Having people from the mainland that came in early, left late, and didn’t have to worry about not having electricity in their homes — it was extremely necessary,” said David Carrasquillo Medrano, an adviser on planning and land use affairs for the city of San Juan, the island’s capital.

New York City buildings department officials said they mapped the damage and streamed the results in near-real time to officials.



Solidarity Rally Addresses National Concerns

The Pantagraph

Josh Knight of Normal said he brought his 8-year-old son to a Not In Our Town Bloomington-Normal rally Wednesday night in Bloomington to show him how to be an American.

Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner joining hands with Bloomington's Imam Abu-Emad Al-Talla and Mayor Chris Koos of Normal. (Photo by Cristian Jaramillo/WGLT)

Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner joining hands with Bloomington's Imam Abu-Emad Al-Talla and Mayor Chris Koos of Normal. (Photo by Cristian Jaramillo/WGLT)

"I wanted to show him that we treat all people equally and that we instill in him the values of American culture that we believe in and that is freedom for all people and to be an open and welcoming person," said Knight.

Nadia Khusro, a Normal Community High School senior, said she was born in the United States but has Muslim relatives living in South Asia. 

"They might not be able to visit us because they are not Christian and they are not white," she said. "It makes me scared and it also makes me a little angry.

"They are my family, and they should have as much of a right to visit this country as anybody else."

They were among about 1,200 people who filled the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts auditorium to capacity in a show of support for their immigrant neighbors and to protest President Donald Trump's executive order on immigration, making the rally one of the largest in recent memory in the Twin Cities.

Imam Sheikh Abu Emad Al-Talla of Masjid Ibrahim, a Bloomington mosque, was the first of many speakers who brought the crowd to their feet when he said, "On behalf of all Muslims all over the world: We love you guys. We are part of the United States of America."

NIOT organized the event following Trump's order on Friday banning entry to the United States citizens of seven predominantly Muslim nations for 90 days, all refugees for 120 days and people from Syria indefinitely.

On its Facebook page, NIOT asked the public to come “stand with our Muslim and other neighbors.” It also asked elected officials to attend, affirm the First Amendment's protection of freedom of religion stand against a registry of people based on their faith.

Five people stood outside the BCPA to show support for Trump's immigration policy, including Ward 3 aldermanic candidate Gary Lambert.

Julia Reinthaler said the group was "demonstrating our support of President Trump in his efforts to improve our national security by putting together a system that will fully, thoroughly vet any immigrants coming into this country.

"We believe in immigration and we're pro-immigrant, but we are very much supportive of this administration's efforts to overhaul our system and better serve the national interest," she said.

In the event, Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner said he had mixed emotions about the event.

"I am so thrilled to see this room packed," he said. "I am saddened that we have to be here to try to defend the idea that all people are created equal."

Speaking of the United States as a nation of immigrants, Normal Mayor Chris Koos spoke of his family's Irish and German roots.

"They came here because they left a hellish environment where they could no longer thrive," he said. "So they traveled halfway around the world to find a place where they could better their lives and their family's lives and the lives of their descendants.  

"So today if you come to our community from South Asia, from Mexico, Central America, from Sudan, from Libya and the five other now-named countries, and you come here to find a better way for you and your family we welcome you.

"If you choose us, we choose you. Welcome home," he added, drawing a standing ovation.

The crowd continued to applaud and stand as the two mayors and Al-Talla clasped raised hands in a show of solidarity.

Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe of the Moses Montefiore Temple in Bloomington urged residents not to live as strangers.

"During the past several generations many of my people have lived as strangers in lands not ours," she said. "On occasion we were treated well. Most of the time not.

"There was a time when our nation closed its doors on Jews escaping persecution. While some found safety in other countries, many were refused and ultimately perished in the Holocaust," said Dubowe, adding, "We cannot make this mistake again."

Mandava Rao of the Hindu Temple Bloomington-Normal read some Hindu mantras, and the Rev. Molly Ward, an Episcopal priest, closed with a prayer.

"This meant a lot to us — such tremendous support and tremendous energy from the whole community regardless of their faith, regardless of their ethnicity," said Mohammed Zaman, president of Masjid Ibrahim, at the conclusion of the  90-minute event.

"This shows that when a community gets together they can fight any evil, whether it's national, international or on any level."

Capitol Forum to Offer Global Perspective on Human Rights

ISU's Bone Student Center will host the April 14 Illinois Capitol Forum on America's Future, a year-long civic education program for Illinois high school students promoting "informed discussion about and active participation in human-rights policy issues."

Capitol Forum supports teachers in their classrooms and focuses on human rights concerns worldwide. Collaboration with Illinois State University's History Department allows teachers and students opportunity to benefit from the resources and campus of the University. Illinois Humanities invites high schools – public and private, in upstate and downstate Illinois – to apply for the program.

This year's local participants include Bloomington High School Megan Bozarth and Normal Community High School's Kelly Keogh, as well as ISU Coordinator Richard Hughes.

Keynoting the event will be ISU history Prof. Issam Nassar, who will address the current situation in Syria. Follow-up sessions will address civil rights, military intervention for human rights, sexual exploitation, children's and health rights, and international justice. A series of human rights simulations will complete the day's activities.

Operation Beautiful Offers Affirmation to NCHS Students

Normal Community High School students Thursday found something different in the school's hallways -- positive affirmation, courtesy of an NCHS' Not In Our School project Not In Our Town: Bloomington/Normal (NIOTBN) Education Subcommittee Chairman Camille Taylor deemed "seed planting."

"This afternoon, Not in Our School put compliments on about 2000 lockers at Normal Community!" student Aishwarya Shekara recounted. "But it wasn't just NIOS students from NCHS who helped.

"(Normal Community West High School Project Oz coordinator) Jessica Jackson and students from Normal West's NIOS and Hype club came to Normal Community after school to help us accomplish this task! Working together was so much fun, and though the rivalry between both schools is strong, it was put aside for friendship. Students from Culture Club and Future Business Leaders of America took part as well, and we finished around 4. I expected us to take three hours, but we did it in one! All of our clubs worked in unity today and it was beautiful to watch! Thank you all so much for your time and support. I can honestly say that I am blessed to go to Normal Community. Thank you for everything!"

Shekara is the daughter of Illinois State University arts instructor Archana Shekara, a member of the NIOTBN Steering Committee.

Muslims Show Compassion, Share Believes with Community

Julia Evelsizer

The Pantagraph

Stephen Robinson, sociology teacher at Normal Community High School, eagerly accepted a student's invitation to learn about a different religion.

Pantagraph photo by Steve Smedley

Pantagraph photo by Steve Smedley

Robinson is Buddhist. The student is Muslim. The invitation was for Saturday's open house at Masjid Ibrahim mosque, 2407 E. Washington St.

About 100 Christians, Buddhists and atheists filled the mosque to learn more about the Islamic faith from their Muslim neighbors.

“We hope people will use this event to learn more about Islam personally, rather than to only hear what’s reported in the media,” said mosque president, Mohammed Zaman.

Robinson and his partner, Jaime Breeck, attended with their 2-year-old son, Avram.

“We wanted to support the Muslim community and have a better understanding of their faith,” said Breeck.

“We are conscious of the discriminatory culture we live in," added Robinson. "We brought our son here because we want him to learn about all different people and cultures so he can decide what he wants in life.”

Zaman said one of the event's main goals was to dispel myths about Islam.

“Many think the two words that should come after Muslim are ‘terrorism’ and ‘violence,’ but it is a very peaceful religion,” said Zaman.

Guests were greeted at the door and asked to remove their shoes. The mosque provided lunch and reading materials; visitors could ask questions and watch prayers. Each was offered a copy of the Quran to take home.

Director Sabeel Ahmed of Gain Peace, a non-profit Chicago organization whose goal is to educate the public about Islam, was the main speaker.

“We are all a part of this wonderful country and we hope many will leave this event as friends," said Ahmed.

He explained the basics of Islamic beliefs and how closely the religion is tied to Christianity.

“We believe in one God and we worship him as the creator, not creation itself, just like Christians,” said Ahmed.

During his studies of the bible, Ahmed found most of the scriptures to be the same. Muslims believe in Jesus as a prophet and accept him the same way they accept Mohammed as a prophet. They believe Mohammed to be the last prophet of God, with Jesus before him.

“Powerful is not he who knocks the other down. Indeed powerful is he who controls himself in a fit of anger,” said Ahmed, quoting Mohammed.

Kelley Becker, associate minister at First Christian Church in Bloomington, attended with church members. Becker, who works with Not In Our Town of Bloomington-Normal, said NIOT is working with local Hindu and Jewish temples on more open houses. 

“It’s hard to hate people when you come face to face and listen to their stories,” said Becker. “We all see God similarly and we all want the same things for the world and our families.”

NCHS Senior 100 Black Men Mentee of the Year; Program Aims at SMART Education

Lenore Sobota

The Pantagraph

Markus Brooks of Bloomington is just starting his senior year at Normal Community High School, but he is already looking ahead — to attending college, teaching social studies and becoming a mentor like those who have mentored him through 100 Black Men of Central Illinois.

Brooks, son of Udonald and Dorothy Brooks, was recently named Mentee of the Year by the organization, which began in Bloomington in 2004 as a chapter of the national organization.

“It made me a better person,” Brooks said of his experience in the M4L (Mentoring 4 Life) program. “I made my goals higher. I know a lot more about society.”

His enthusiasm for the program brings a smile to the face of Paul Hursey, who has been involved in the mentorship program since it started about seven years ago.

“It started out as a reading program, but we saw that these young men needed more than a reading program,” Hursey said.

Although Brooks lives in a home with both parents present, Hursey said, “We get a lot of young men who are in single-guardian homes.”

The mentors provide them with role models and opportunities they might not otherwise have — and another adult to push them to do their best.

“I don't talk to them about potential,” Hursey said. “Potential is just wasted capability.”

Udonald Brooks, who has worked at State Farm for 26 years, said he has watched his son mature and become more aware of his ability to influence others through his involvement in the program.

“It allows him to interact with people from different social statuses,” Udonald Brooks said. “People from different backgrounds can have a lot of the same goals and different ways to reach them.”

Dorothy Brooks, a substitute teacher in Bloomington District 87, likes the way the mentors make sure the youths keep up their grades and encourage discussion.

Hursey said: “Don't misjudge us by our name. We have Caucasians in our program as well.”

District 87 school Superintendent Barry Reilly said, “They really have a passion, not only for mentorship but for doing things to help the entire community.”

For example, the organization collaborates with the NAACP to provide scholarships for low-income students to attend summer school.

“They just ask how much we need and write a check,” Reilly said.

Next month, the organization is offering a bus trip to a college and scholarship fair in Chicago.

“For a lot of these kids, college is way off in the distance,” Hursey said.

Their mentors try to get them to think about a path that will give them a career — not just a job — whether it involves a college degree or a trade, he said.

Education and economic empowerment are two of the pillars of 100 Black Men. The others are mentoring and health and wellness. A health awareness breakfast is among their annual outreach activities.

They also partner with other organizations on such projects as holiday food baskets, school supply giveaways and college scholarships.

The mentoring program groups together youths of varying ages, some as young as fourth grade.

The younger students learn from the older ones and the older ones learn to set a good example, Hursey explained.

A typical session will start with a quiz about topics such as politics, current events or black history.

The group then discusses each question and the answers. Sometimes the youths are presented with a scenario — such as being at a party where they shouldn't be — and discuss what they should do: Call a parent? Walk home?

The idea is to teach them critical thinking skills, Hursey said.

Brooks was selected as Mentee of the Year because of his regular participation, good grades and volunteer activities in school and at his church, according to Hursey.

“He sets an example inside our mentor sessions for most of the younger ones,” Hursey said. “He thinks things though before saying anything.”

Turning to Brooks, he said, “We're going to try to pull some of that teaching stuff out of you this year, so be prepared."

100 Black Men of Central Illinois sponsors the Mentoring the 100 Way program, a holistic approach that addresses the social, emotional and cultural needs of children ages 8-18. It’s really what we’re all about. Members become mentors, advocates, and role models for the youth within our community. Through chapter operated one-on-one and group mentoring efforts, our members forge relationships that positively impact our greatest resource, our youth. Our efforts focus on building essential skills needed to become productive, contributing citizens in Bloomington/Normal (Central Illinois).

Mentoring the 100 Way uses three different techniques: One-on-one, group, and tag-team mentoring. All techniques focus on being "S.M.A.R.T.":
Specific: Specific and clearly defined mentoring population
Measurable: Measure and evaluate effectiveness
Attainable: Setting goals that are attainable for the children and mentors
Realistic: Goals should be realistic (makes sense to the mentee)
Target Driven: Have a set target of pursuit

For more on the organization, visit