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Update: Cheerful students walk out, march, protest state bill

River Falls High school students march down South Main Street toward a campus rally to protest a proposed state bill that would affect public employees and teachers.

Nearly one-third of the River Falls High School student body walked out of classes Thursday, Feb. 17, just after 10 a.m. They assembled in the parking lot in front of the school's entrance. Principal Elaine Baumann, Superintendent Tom Westerhaus and other school administrators looked on but didn't interfere.

The walkout was organized by students Wednesday afternoon and evening through Facebook. Text messages were also used to get the word out.

During the parking lot rally, one student organizer shouted that, "We do care for our teachers, this is not about skipping classes."

The students were protesting Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to have public workers pay more for their health insurance and pensions. Walker also wants to weaken the collective bargaining rights of most public-sector unions.

Wisconsin teachers would be affected by both proposals.

Walker is trying to wipe out the current budget's $137-million deficit and a projected $3.6-billion deficit in the state's next two-year budget.

The high school students at the Thursday morning rally, estimated at more than 300, cheered and chanted, "I love River Falls High School." They also sang the school song.

Later they also chanted, "Kill the bill," referring to Walker's proposed legislation in Madison.

Baumann grew teary-eyed watching the students, saying she was proud of them, that they were learning firsthand about the democratic process, that they were acting out their convictions, and that some were ready to face the consequences of their actions.

Consequences included being marked truant for those who decided to leave school grounds and join a big noon protest rally at UW-River Falls.

Baumann said about 175 students left for the campus rally. They were considered truant and will serve some detention time in school next week.

After the high school walkout in the parking lot ended about 10:30 a.m., about half the students went back inside for classes.

The rest left the high school and walked along Cemetery Road and then to South Main Street on their way to join the campus rally.

Another student leader had warned the group to be on their best behavior while on campus because people and the media would be watching to see how the protesters conducted themselves.

The goal of the students was to boost awareness for the plight of Wisconsin public employees and school teachers.

As one girl walked with her friends on South Main Street past the River Falls Motel, she said, "This is not about missing school. It's for a good cause."

High school junior Biza Semi said of the decision to leave school grounds and be truant, "Standing up for what is right is definitely worth the one-hour detention."