EAST PEORIA — In a year when students across the country took to the streets and in some cases, capitol buildings, to protest school shootings and gun violence, the Center for Prevention of Violence and Abuse took notice.

And that was before the most recent mass shooting Friday at a high school in Texas.

In particular, the agency noticed students from Richwoods High School and East Peoria Community High School, winners of the agency’s inaugural Outstanding Youth Leader in Violence Prevention Award.

Four Richwoods students were honored for organizing a sister event in conjunction with a national school walk-out March 14 on the one-month anniversary of the Parkland, Fla., school mass shooting, which left 17 students and staff dead.

The students are Ruby Hirschmann, Morgan Lott, Holiday Maag, and Rebekah Swearingian. They organized a 17-minute silent sit-in in Richwoods hallways on March 14. A month later, on the 19th anniversary mass shootings at Columbine, the four organized a television assembly on school safety, broadcast to each class from the school’s television studio. Hirschmann and Swearingian graduated last week.

Garrett Starling, who also recently graduated, helped found a club devoted to tolerance and anti-bullying at EPCHS.

“He’s a natural-born leader,” said Angie Pittman, the EPCHS teacher who nominated him for the award.

Starling makes his reasons for starting the club sound simple. The school didn’t have one. But, according to Pittman, there was nothing simple about it.

The club met each Wednesday, before school and after school. Signs announcing meeting dates and other activities were torn down repeatedly, Pittman said. Starling was just as relentless about replacing them.

“I took it upon myself to make sure they got back up,” he said.

Starling would also intervene when he saw other students being bullied, Pittman said. “It makes sense he wants to be a police officer, he’s everybody’s protector.”

Starling’s protective nature didn’t begin or end with an anti-bullying club. He recently attained the rank of Eagle Scout — the Boy Scouts’ highest achievement — with another project involving signs. He created and led a project to mark a hiking trail with 25 wooden signs at Spring Creek Nature Preserve in East Peoria.

As a 2018 graduate of EPCHS, Starling won’t be around to see what happens with the anti-bullying club next year.

“But, hopefully, it will blossom into something huge.”

The Center for Prevention of Violence and Abuse has similar goals for what will become an annual award.

The award is open to students who participate in the agency’s prevention education programs at schools throughout Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford counties. The agency works with about 30,000 students a year.

Pam Adams can be reached at 686-3245 or padams@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @padamspam.