“In many states it’s more difficult to register to vote than it is to buy a rifle. Apparently to some politicians, a vote is scarier than a gun. We’re changing that.”
These words are part of the mission of the #NationalSchoolWalkout, founded by Lane Murdock, a 15-year-old student at Ridgefield High School, located just 30 minutes from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Murdock was in the fifth grade when Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 first graders and six adults on Friday, December 14th, 2012. Now, catalyzed by the events of the Parkland shooting on February 14 of this year, she has acquired over 250,000 signatures for her Change.org petition and registered some 1,900-odd schools nationwide, all of whom participated in their version of a National School Walkout last month, on April 20. Ridgefield’s student-organized event started at 10am and lasted until the final bell rang, with time for speeches, activities, and voter registration. Murdock chose the anniversary of the attack on Columbine because, she says, “nothing has changed since.”
Gun violence is much bigger and more complex than shootings in schools. But adults have failed to explain (and much less fix) this dilemma.
Perpetrators don’t fit a consistent profile, but do appear to follow a clear script laid forth by Columbine attackers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold in 1999.
Malcolm Gladwell suggests that the modern phenomenon of mass attacks in schools might be thought of “as a slow-motion, ever-evolving riot, in which each new participant’s action makes sense in reaction to and in combination with those who came before” — likening present-day shooters to new individuals joining a riot, each with a higher and higher threshold for violent acts than the rebellious instigators who started it.
But what else connects the violence?
Perhaps, as the four-person School Safety Commission led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos believes, media coverage of shootings provides inspiration for new shooters. Violent video games numb kids to the real consequences of firing a weapon. But students affected by the violence — survivors like the leaders of Parkland’s #NeverAgain movement and activists like Murdock — see the problem as the legislation around the guns themselves, or lack thereof.
In speeches delivered on March 24th’s March for Our Lives, students made specific demands from elected officials, mobilizing not only against gun violence but in favor of increasing voter turnout among the youngest voters.
17-year-old Delaney Tarr, a survivor of the Parkland shooting, threatened politicians that she and her generation would vote out any politician who failed to support an assault weapons ban and a legislation that tightens background checks and the shrinking of magazine capacity.
While the students’ focus is on the November 2018 midterms, many of them, including Murdock, still won’t be able to vote by then. Some legislatures are already taking action, even if they’ve failed to meet the activists’ demands; Florida speedily raised its minimum age to buy guns and banned bump stocks (and, subsequently, was sued by the NRA).
It is going to take much more than those small steps, however, for the Parkland campaign’s #NeverAgain hashtag to ring true. From the activists’ perspective, current laws have effectively excused the actions of shooters since before they were born. So despite their rightful sense of urgency and high stakes — life and death — it may be worth taking the long view. After all, they’ll be the next generation of policymakers.
Apparently, it’s not even too early for Twitter to be calling for 11-year-old Naomi Wadler of Alexandria, Virginia, to become President (even if not for 24 years). She and her friend Carter Anderson organized a walkout at their elementary school on March 14, the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting, adding a minute of silence to the 17 minutes observed by many other schools around the country. The extra minute was for 17-year-old Courtlin Arrington, who was shot and killed at her Alabama high school on March 7, three weeks after the Florida massacre. In her March for Our Lives speech, Wadler brought attention to Arrington and other black women and girls who generally receive far less media attention as victims of gun violence.
“My friends and I might still be 11, and we might still be in elementary school, but we know life isn’t equal for everyone and we know what is right and wrong,” Wadler said, with impressive composure that earned her online praise from the masses, including Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o.
Indeed, the moment highlights a grim racial disparity. “We came from an affluent area, and we’re mostly white, and we have to use that privilege,” Tarr told Time Magazine.
The very present, very scary threat of mass shootings aside, school simply isn’t a safe place for everyone — and hasn’t been for a long time. “Zero-tolerance” policies instituted in the 1990’s criminalize disruptive behavior and increase the likelihood that students will make contact with the criminal justice system while they’re supposed to be learning. They also result in three times more suspensions for black students than for whites, despite the fact that blacks make up only 16% of the student population. Suspensions and expulsions, in turn, contribute to students being held back a year or dropping out. These factors, plus the presence of law enforcement in schools — presumably to prevent mass shootings — are to blame for a school-to-prison pipeline that affects black students disproportionately and contributes to our country’s significant mass incarceration problem.
By the way: the Obama administration put guidelines in place to reduce such “zero-tolerance” policies, but Devos’ School Safety Commission, the one founded to address demands from survivors of school shootings, is on track to reinstate them.
In other schools, even drinking water remains unsafe. The crisis in Flint, Michigan, caused the Environmental Protection Agency to identify schools in 49 states that were unwittingly serving lead to their students. The culprit: old plumbing and budgets that left no room for replacing pipes. A study by Reuters has found a link between lead contamination and violent criminal behavior in adults. We’ve come full circle.
Safety in schools is something few students can take for granted any longer. The very body that makes going to school the law is simultaneously responsible for — and is profiting from — violating students’ well-being through their pipes, prison networks, and steady supply of weaponry. The students who are educating themselves and taking the gun control conversation into their own hands, social media accounts, and votes have every right to step in.
Lara Wilson Townsend is a writer, dancer-choreographer, and brand designer. When she’s not directing @theassemblydance, she and her husband can be found manning their newly-opened art and event space in Yucca Valley, @compoundyv. Come visit!