U.S. students demand schools safe from gun violence

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TWH –Around the United States yesterday, students walked out of classes or otherwise engaged in protests in response to the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida, which resulted in 17 dead and an equal number wounded. The Wednesday action manifested differently depending on, among other factors, parental and administrative support. While few student participants were available for this story, several adult Wild Hunt readers provided their perspectives from around the country.

Marietta, Georgia school protest [Ann Hamilton Stokes]

While many of these events were student-led, the date of Mar. 14 was coordinated nationwide through the Women’s March website, where it’s reported that 3,136 events were staged and organizers are seeking to ascertain the number of total participants. Some of those involved chose to wear orange — the color which protects hunters and separates toy guns from weapons — or the burgundy and silver school colors of those who died in Florida.

Melyssa Deel Posada lives in the state of Washington, where “administrations are excusing the absence of the student has a note from parents that they are aware. They are also only counting it as an absence if the student misses an entire class, and they are asking students not to leave campus for safety reasons.” Her sense was that many students in her state would be participating.

Posada’s children are not yet in school, but she has given the question of gun violence some thought. “I’m not for a weapons ban, as a gun owner myself. I [would] like to see early intervention as these things don’t just come out of nowhere, stricter background checks, mental health screenings, and reinforced school security.” She would also like to prohibiting gun ownership to those found guilty of domestic violence and animal abuse, “since these seem to be a sign that a person is capable of more violent acts.

“I see gun ownership as a heavy responsibility that we should be worthy of,” Posada concluded, “not some inalienable right that anyone should have.”

Officials in the Denver district where Ann Hatzakis’ children attend advised that plans would be age-based: elementary students would follow a normal schedule, middle-schoolers would have “safe spaces” to express their views as would high school students.  Only the latter would not be prevented from leaving without a parent signing them out.

An email she received also was clear that “we will follow normal attendance policies. This means any students not present in their scheduled classes will be marked absent unless a parent or guardian provides permission.”

Hatzakis does not own a gun because she hasn’t “had access to both a firearm and a safe place to practice using it,” but in general she favors more regulation. Suggestions she offered included more stringent mental-health checks and regulation of gun-show transactions.

Sign created by Denver high school student [Ann Hatzakis].

In Massachusetts, Heather is both a teacher and a parent. “We have some of the strictest regulations, but kids are still scared,” she said. “Their fear is real. They are very aware that we can’t really protect them.”

In the district where she teaches, the events were student-led, although a cordon of police was to be in place surrounding the campus. Teachers could participate if all their students did or another teacher agreed to watch the remainder, and no student would be penalized unless they broke other school rules, such as for vandalism or smoking.

In her classroom, Heather said that she never goes more than few weeks into the year before students want to know about lockdown and other safety procedures. “In every single one of my classes, I’ve been asked about our plan for an active shooting,” she said, and she’s never initiated any of those conversations.

She is not a fan of the idea of armed teachers. “I lose my laptop in my room five times a day,” she said. “I do not want to carry a gun.” Even if she has colleagues more qualified, she wonders how law enforcement officers would differentiate them from the shooter.

Heather’s daughter Audrey’s school had a more scripted event planned, which entailed forming up as the number “17” for a photo op; she said it was organized entirely by school officials. She echoed her mother’s belief that the fear is real, saying, “It’s just awful. You don’t know if you know people as well as you think.”

Rahne, a high school teacher in the Hudson Valley of New York, reported that administrators in her district sought to create something more like an assembly, but didn’t get quite what they bargained for in the end. Plans initially called for assembling in the gymnasium, but then it was relocated to outside, and yesterday morning a shelter-in-place order was issued due to a social media threat — the second in two weeks — was discovered. Many students left the building anyway.

As a teacher, Rahne’s concerns over safety are only amplified by the suggestion made by President Trump that teachers be armed.”Teachers have to work surrounded by children; in other words, they’re surrounded by immature, unpredictable, and impulsive people every day. Especially in high school, those children are often stronger and have less self-control than teachers. This is an extremely stressful job, and sometimes even very good teachers hit the breaking point. I work in a district where, several years ago, one teacher attacked another teacher in the middle of a hall crowded with students. The weapon was a screwdriver, and the victim was stabbed 16 times before somebody was able to get the attacker off of her. There was no warning of the attack — it was a complete ambush.

“The victim survived. If the attacking teacher had had a gun, I don’t think the victim would be alive today, and I think a number of other people in the hallway would have been shot as well. When people have psychotic breaks, they don’t think about potential consequences for their actions, and so having armed people in the school would not be a deterrent for somebody in that state of mind.”

Parents stand off school grounds to support children protesting at a Georgia High School [Ann Hamilton Stokes]

Ryan Denison teaches in a Georgia high school. “Our district has chosen to allow a protest to happen and leave it up to the students,” he said when reached earlier in the week. “At my school our administrators will allow the students that want to express themselves and exercise their rights, within reason, to do so,” by gathering on the football field for the ascribed 17 minutes, representing the number killed in Parkland.

“There isn’t any promotion of the event and I haven’t heard very many of my kids speak of it. Quite a few did not know of the protest.”

Denison said his students haven’t been talking about gun violence without prompting, but when he went over safety protocols their fear was evident. “They were scared and unsure. A lot of them realize they don’t know how they would react. They express the fear of not knowing if it will happen here, because it seems to happen anywhere.”

He calls the notion of arming teachers the “most ridiculous idea I’ve heard in a long time.”

Like Posada, Denison is a gun owner advocating for stronger gun control measures. “No one is taking guns and very few have proposed that. We register, license and insure automobiles. . . . I had classes and I grew up with guns and was taught to respect them at an early age. It wasn’t an ‘ammosexual’ type thing. It was a tool that can deal death and should be treated as such.”

Elsewhere in Georgia, some parents feared administrators were cracking down, and hard. The ACLU had representatives at various Cobb County high schools on the lookout for rights being infringed, and are now investigating whether teachers physically blocked exits to prevent students from leaving.

One parent, Cristin Zegers, said that while nearly half of the 2,700 students in her child’s high school signed up for the event, only 262 actually participated. Administrators were “vehemently opposed to the walkout, citing their concern for safety and disruption of instructional time,” but parents found those arguments “disingenuous.”

Rumors that students would be removed from sports teams and student government were rampant, Zegers said.

While punishment for civil disobedience is always a possibility, it’s the threat of a disproportionate response which had ACLU representatives on hand. Zegers said she carefully went through the code of conduct with her children to determine what the appropriate consequences might be.

Georgia parents protest district policy on walkout [Ann Hamilton Stokes]

“This has been a tremendous teaching and parenting opportunity for me with my three children. I am so proud of the teenagers who have stepped up to champion the cause of common sense gun laws, and I’m inspired by the budding activism in my own children,” Zegers said.

Amber Moon has only one child left in school, but as a police officer she sees things from that perspective as well. She very much thinks awareness of one’s school’s safety plans is important, as is the ALICE protocol: alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate.

Her biggest concern ahead of the protests was that students might engage in vandalism or violence, which would diminish the message. “They will definitely get their point across faster and people will listen if it’s peaceful,” she said. “If people destroy cars and things like that during the walkout it lessens their message.”

As for arming teachers, Moon said that depends on the individual whether it’s a good idea, and therefore “my opinion is not to do it and focus on making the schools safer and harder to get into; I think school should look into safety glass, safe rooms, metal detectors, more than one school resource officer. We are never going to be able to stop people who want to hurt other people, but we should do all we can to make our schools [impossible] to get into.”

The sentiment among gun owners interviewed here that stricter gun control is needed was echoed in a recent article in Time, which included findings that 69 percent of NRA members favored stronger background checks, a figure that rises to 89 percent among those who do not own guns. On the subject of arming teachers, a white paper released from the Violence Policy Center reflects the sentiments interview subjects that it might not end well by compiling data from officer-involved shootings.

Reports on the national walk-out have dotted the mainstream media over the past several days, including inspirational photos of kids standing in front of schools, on fields, and in parking lots to raise their voice on a current and heated topic.  Kids not allowed out of school took a knee to show support, and memorials were held.

We will continue to follow this story and the related issues as they develop.