Across the country, young people are mobilizing for three demonstrations against gun violence. The first is a 17 minute walkout on March 14th, to honor those killed in Parkland, FL. On Saturday, March 24th, tens of thousands are expected in Washington, DC for the “March For Our Lives.” A second national student walkout is also planned for April 20th. WCVE’s Catherine Komp spoke with local organizers and has this story for Learning Curve.
When Maxwell Nardi heard about the Parkland, Florida shooting, he felt sick.
Maxwell Nardi: You don't even know how to act. You're angry, but then you're also sad, and you're also just mad that no one has done anything and this keeps happening over and over and over again.
Fellow student Kennedy Mackey was visiting her grandmother when she learned about Parkland and at first, she didn’t give it much thought. The next morning, watching the news with her mom, it sunk in.
Kennedy Mackey: I felt a sense of disappointment, of course with the situation, but also with myself in the fact that I was able to brush it off the night before and not think too much of it because it's not something that I should just be able to walk away from. It’s something that you should sit down and look at the TV and understand what's happening. So it was a moment of realization for me, seeing it the second time around and really understanding why it's important to take a moment and reflect on it.
The students are both seniors at Henrico County’s Douglas Freeman High School. They’re also in the District’s Specialty Center for Leadership, Government, and Global Economics.
Nardi: The night of the Parkland shooting, I was so mad that I started trying to figure out how can I do something here? So I started building a website, I started building all these advocacy tools, and I stayed up until like 3 a.m. that morning just because I felt so much that we needed change and that there had to be something that needed to change. So when the Parkland victims started standing up, I immediately got behind them. I immediately started trying to back and kind of spread the word about everything that they're doing.
Nardi and Mackey started to organize with other students. The next week, on February 22nd, a teacher mentioned the School Board was meeting that night.
Mackey: Not encouraging us to go or telling us not to go, but we all just said, “We’re going to go!” …and everyone piled themselves into cars, people picked people up and everyone made their way to the school board meeting.
During public comment, dozens of students lined up to speak. Some had prepared their remarks, others spoke off the cuff.
Students: In my lifetime, there has never been a moment that my nation has not been at war, that violence was not commonplace, or that school shootings are unexpected…
I’m disgusted that our country has gotten to a point, where nothing happens if a school is attacked by a shooter…
There is no reason whatsoever, that a 13 year old child should come home and be scared for her life after going to a place that’s supposed to protect and educate her…
Everytime you turn on the news, someone’s getting shot up. And for you to be people who are supposed to represent us, I feel like you should stand with us to be the change we want that we want to seek in the world…
I and many of us in the room have been taught that peacefully assembling is a Constitutional right. It is our right to come together with like minded people and demand change in our government. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said the white moderate is more devoted to order than to justice. What he saying here is being complacent does not bring change. We do not want to be complacent any longer. Please allow us to be the peaceful change that our country needs.
Mackey: I think that everyone felt comfortable with each other, everyone felt like everyone cared and emotions were really high, and we appreciated the support that we felt even from our superintendent who made a statement in the middle of it just to say I am extremely proud of you guys, punishments or consequences aside or anything about the school board aside, it's inspiring to see students coming out and being politically active because that's something that once again Henrico County Public Schools promotes for us and so. It wasn't as organized at it may have come off as, but we were very proud with the ending effect of it all.
Nardi: Just the energy in the room, it reminds you how passionate everyone is about this and reminds you how united everyone is. We're fighting for this together, we all recognize this is an issue. And the fact that within literally four hours of notice, we were able to get almost 50 students from across the county to come to a school board meeting in a not so convenient location is kind of a testament to how dedicated students are to fixing this issue. So every time someone tells us this isn't going to work, every time someone tells us we're going to fail, that's what motivates us, and that's why we're going to keep pushing until we actually create real, actionable change.
Andy Jenks: I think there was an enormous amount of pride.
Henrico County Schools spokesperson Andy Jenks.
Jenks: We were proud of our students regardless of what they were standing up for and discussing at that moment. Pride in having the courage to take time out of the evening to come down and share their beliefs, knowing that perhaps not everyone shares those beliefs but they’re taking a stand and doing so in a proper public forum and articulating themselves quite well in that moment. For anyone to think back to when they were 16 or 17, that’s not easy. A lot of us look at it in the adult perspective and you’re used to these environments where you’re speaking publicly and we’ve done it for years and years, but here we have teenagers that for some of them at least, that may have been the first time they were doing something like that. So our feeling in that moment was pride for what they were doing.
The first demonstration is March 14th, a 17 minute nationwide walkout beginning at 10:00 am. The theme is “Enough is Enough.”
Jenks: Our position is to be very respectful of the wishes of the students who say they want to participate.
Andy Jenks says Henrico County is advising schools to meet with student leaders about the walkout, to hear their plans and emphasize the need for safety.
Jenks: What we are sharing with our schools is general guidance that first of all, students were concerned that they’d face automatic suspensions and we’ve been clear that we’re not talking about suspensions now. What we do identify, what we do see here is a teachable moment, one that can respect all viewpoints on an issue, being mindful of the safety of students who wish to participate but also asking what kind of accomodations are there for students who do not wish to participate. Our guidance for schools is to be mindful of all these variables, and all these wishes that are out there and be respectful of those but also emphasizing the safety of students and staff.
In response to questions about other districts’ guidance, Chesterfield Public Schools says “It is our goal to work with students to find a way to express their viewpoints in a manner that does not cause a disruption to the educational environment.” Petersburg Schools says they are “planning now so that schools are prepared.” Richmond Public Schools says “principals are working to identify ways for their students to honor the victims and share their views about gun control and school safety in a peaceful manner while remaining on school grounds.” The District is also planning a “RPS Non-Violence March on the Capital" on Saturday March 24, to coincide with the “The March for Our Lives” in Washington, DC. A second national school walkout is planned for Friday, April 20th, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting. Henrico County Schools doesn’t yet have guidance for this demonstration. Douglas Freeman’s Maxwell Nardi and Kennedy Mackey say they’re coordinating with students across the state. The goal is to bus thousands of students to Richmond for a march to the Capital.
Mackey: What we're asking for above all other things is responsibility. Responsibility on the hand of gun gun owners, responsibility in the hands of those who are making the legislation, responsibility on those who are checking the legislation and once I think that we all come to a general consensus, and we all understand that we all have to be responsible in this situation that is when we see the actual change.
Nardi: What we're trying to do with this movement is to show everyone that this is not about taking away your guns. This is not about gun control. This is about keeping kids safe and that's all we're asking for. We're asking for the streets of Richmond, we're asking for the schools of Virginia, we're asking for the kids of America to be kept safe. And only way we can do this is if we start demanding action from legislators so in terms of action they know exactly what they need to do. If they want us to tell them what to do, we'd be happy to because clearly right now they're not doing their jobs. But what we're most effectively and importantly focusing on is shifting our cultural view of these issues and these policies to be that of we're protecting kids, and we're saving lives.
In addition to gun control, Nardi and Kennedy say they want to see improved safety measures and more mental health services in schools. And they don’t want to stop with this issue. They say this moment has showed them the power of young people to organize and lead, to problem-solve and influence change. For Learning Curve, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.