An Illinois high school student has sued her school for discrimination, saying teachers and fellow students harassed her when she tried to bring pro-gun signs to a gun control walkout after the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
Madison Oster, 16, and her father, Jeremy, say school officials in Hononegah Community High School District 207 forced her to protest well away from the main walkout in March — part of a national day of action by gun control advocates.
When Madison asked why she was shunted aside, she said, school Executive Associate Principal Chad Dougherty told her officials feared the pro-gun students would “disturb the peace” and “start a fight.”
“When Madison persisted, Dougherty eventually relented, ushering them across the parking lot, to the football field, and through the gate with a sarcastic bow,” the Oster family says in the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
Second Amendment supporters say they have been given second-class treatment as the political debate has heated up since the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School left 17 dead.
Students and adults who support gun control have earned extensive attention from the press and support from many school officials, who let them skip class for rallies.
Stoneman Douglas gun control activists held another round of demonstrations over the weekend.
Madison’s lawsuit in Illinois argues that the favoritism school officials showed the gun control activists was palpable.
Even after arguing her way onto the field where the main gun control rally was taking place, she and other gun rights supporters were forced to remain well away from the larger crowd of students.
Asked again why they couldn’t join the others, Mr. Dougherty eventually called over Principal Eric Flohr, who told the students “you are the only ones who feel that way,” turned his back and refused to engage with them any further, according to the complaint.
Madison said she and the handful of other students again were held aside after the event as other students filed back into the school and taunted them along the way.
“One student yelled at Madison to kill herself. Another student took pictures of Madison’s group, one of which reportedly became an online meme and method of ridicule among the other HCHS students,” the complaint said. “Finally and ironically, before allowing them to return to class, Dougherty warned the small pro-gun-rights group not to bully the students with different views.”
Madison left the school early “feeling bullied and ostracized” and stayed home for a week because of the bullying. Her father filed a grievance with the school, but nothing came of it.
The lawsuit says the school violated the student’s free speech and equal protection rights and asks a judge to order the school not to violate Madison’s rights.
“Students with different viewpoints retain their free speech rights. When school officials allow those students to be harassed and bullied, something must be done,” said Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, a gun rights group helping fund the lawsuit.
The school district acknowledged that it was aware of the lawsuit but declined to comment, saying it needed to review the claims.
The Parkland shooting marked a new chapter in the gun control debate with its intense focus not just on guns but also on the students who were at the school at the time of the attack.
A number of them have become outspoken gun control activists, such as David Hogg, whose Twitter account has become a forum for battling the National Rifle Association.
Students have also taken a new leadership role on the gun rights side.
“We want America to know that David Hogg does not speak for the millions of young people all over the country who support the Second Amendment,” said Xena Amirani, who chairs the student-led group March for Our Rights. “We want respectful dialogue and encourage our members to share the facts on why gun control is not the answer.”
Still, they find themselves fighting school officials, who are generally more sympathetic to the gun control students.
“I wouldn’t say that every individual school district was partisan, but far and wide, it was more than just a memorial service,” said Connecticut lawyer Deborah Stevenson, who clashed with New Milford Public schools over a March 14 event. “It was a protest with signs, with taking positions, with leading students to do things, to take action, selling T-shirts on school grounds — that’s something different than a simple memorial trying to remember those who died.”
While participating in a similar walkout on April 20, Jonathan Alexander Benko, an 11-year-old from El Paso, Texas, was hit by a truck and killed while crossing a four-lane highway after he and other students left their middle school.
A month earlier in Minneapolis, a student waving a Trump flag was assaulted outside Southwest High School by other students. Fox News reported that he was taken to urgent care afterward for injuries to his arm.
They are also vastly outnumbered.
A student-led, gun rights Stand for the Second group of walkouts on May 2 did not generate nearly the amount of attention or media coverage as the other events.
“We had a couple of people who said they walked out alone, took a selfie and sent it to us,” said Will Riley of New Mexico, who organized the events. “I think those people are very brave because they’re clearly going against what a lot of their fellow students believe in, and they probably endured a lot of ridicule.”
• Valerie Richardson contributed to this report.