It’s not a matter of if another school shooting like the one in Parkland, Florida, will happen again. It’s a matter of when, and that fear is giving rise to a new generation of activists.
Students, teachers and school staff from across the country came together over the past weekend at a Student Gun Violence Summit in Washington, D.C., to create and ratify a Students’ Bill of Rights that addresses gun violence and safer schools and communities.
“We, the students standing against gun violence in America, come together to address that this gun violence is destructive, intersectional, and preventable,” the document states. “In coming together to address how gun violence pervades our schools, homes and communities, we deem that institutions, leaders and policy makers across the country have an imperative to adopt comprehensive measures to prevent this unnecessary violence.”
Three North Carolina students and a teacher attended the Summit. For them, it was a moving event that only further fueled their fire to fight gun violence.
“The sad and terrifying reality is that another school shooting like Parkland will happen if we don’t take action now, said Sawyer Taylor-Arnold. “I hope that one day students won’t have to fear going to school because of gun violence. I hope that school becomes once again a place for education and promise instead of a terrifying gamble of safety. I hope that students in the future won’t know the pain and trauma that accompanies gun violence because we will have the regulation our country desperately needs.”
Taylor-Arnold is a junior at Asheville High School. She said she wanted to attend the Summit to learn more about gun violence and hear first-hand accounts of how it affected so many young people.
“From school shootings to everyday gun violence, this issue is so pervasive and I think in order to really start to get an understanding, it’s important to be with people who have experienced it at such different extremes and from all different places and hear their stories,” she said.
On Saturday, the students heard from varying panels educating them about gun violence and then participated in breakout sessions discussing policy and legislation, mental health and community and school safety.
Several survivors of gun violence, including a student from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, spoke on a panel titled: “Faces of Gun Violence: lived experiences of school shootings, community safety and how gun violence affects families.”
“Gun violence is not new, but I’m new to gun violence,” said Jack MacLeod, who is now a senior at Stoneman Douglas. “When you experience gun violence, there’s a certain obligation within you to do something.”
A former student opened fire at the high school in February, killing 17 students and staff members and injuring 17 others. It is the deadliest shooting at a high school in U.S. history.
MacLeod is one of the students impacted by the Parkland shooting who founded Students for Change, an organization that encourages meaningful discussion about gun violence to drive change.
“There’s so many different aspects to gun violence – it’s not just guns, it’s mental health, it’s prevention, it’s where you live, what kind of community you live in; there’s so many different things to talk about,” MacLeod said. “This is not a new argument, this is a new way to tackle it.”
Abbey Clements facilitated the panel. She was a second-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School when a shooter killed 20 children between six and seven years old and six school staff members. The gunman also killed his mother at their Newtown home and himself.
The shooting is the deadliest mass shooting at a grade or high school and the fourth-deadliest mass shooting by a single person in U.S. history.
Clements spoke about huddling in a closet with her students during the shooting, sharing a bottle of water with them and trying to focus on singing songs and reading books as 154 shots rang out in five minutes.
It wasn’t until six months after the shooting that she started getting involved with gun violence activism.
“This tragedy changed who I am, changed my family, changed everyone in town, everyone in the country and people around the world,” Clements said. “All I know is, for me, and I know for all of you in this room, fighting this fight and trying to make a safer country is what keeps me going, and that’s the part of the aftermath that I feel like I have control over and I know I’ll never stop doing.”
On Sunday, the students drafted the Students’ Bill of Rights for School Safety, voted on it and ratified it as a group. The document contains 14 action items aiming to protect students and teachers and prevent gun violence.
It offers solutions to the many issues students see in and out of school that give way to gun violence. The first three are:
1. Establish a school safety committee whose meetings are open to the public at every school equally composed of students, parents and faculty.
2. Provide immediate access to qualified counselors in safe spaces for students of all demographics at all levels of education.
3. Encourage all school personnel to foster positive relationships at all levels of education.
As students and teachers return home, it’s expected they will work with school districts and legislators to implement the document.
Jimmy McDowell, a JROTC teacher at Northampton County High School in Gaston, attended the Summit and helped monitor the student-led activities. He said he and one of his students will make a presentation about their experience and the Students’ Bill of Rights to the school board next week.
“I think the more education we get out there, the better it will be,” McDowell said.
He’s hopeful the school board will adopt the Students’ Bill of Rights, but if not, that they will at least recognize there are some good solutions to start implementing.
As for the classroom, McDowell said he has already told classes about the Summit and hopes to keep young people motivated. He was moved by the way everyone came together over the weekend to come up with a common voice.
“I saw future leaders of America up there speaking,” he said.
Taylor-Arnold said she hopes to take the students’ resolve she saw over the weekend back to her community “and not only push for more comprehensive gun control, but make sure that others are voting for leaders who will help pass such legislation and educate my peers on why this is an important issue.”
She described being a student in this era of gun violence as terrifying.
“It’s a really scary time to go to school each day knowing that what happened at Parkland could very well happen at my school,” she said. “I’ve had friends change their class schedules so they’re on campus less out of fear of a school shooting.”
Taylor-Arnold said she doesn’t personally identify as a gun violence survivor and that the Parkland shooting sparked her activism for gun control, but she has been affected by gun violence.
“I had a friend from elementary school commit suicide using a gun a couple of months ago and a few months before that, a boy from my school and his mother were shot and killed,” she said. “While I don’t personally consider myself a survivor, I really do believe gun violence affects everyone in America in some capacity or another.”
The most moving part of the Summit, she added, was hearing personal stories from survivors.
Taylor-Arnold asked that people who go to the polls Nov. 6 not forget those students affected by gun violence who aren’t yet of age to vote.
“We are paying for policy decisions we have no say in with our lives and I hope that voters remember that gun control is a must,” she said. “In order to see the regulation we want put into law, we first have to see the leaders who will do it elected and that requires everyone who can to go out and vote. We’re counting on you!”
What: A Parkland school shooting survivor is one of three people who will speak at Duke University this week about challenges to student voting rights. Duke alumna Symonne Singleton and Supreme Court candidate Anita Earls will also speak.
When: Thursday from 5:30 to 7 p.m.
Where: Fleishman Commons at the Sanford School of Public Policy, 201 Science Dr., Durham, NC 27708
More information here.