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Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Students speak out on gun violence

From the left: Fred Hagen-Gates of Woodbridge High School and Youth for National Action; Lena Ebadi of Stuart High School; Mayada Hassan of Stuart; Dolly Lebow of Falls Church High School, student school board member Niharika Vattikonda; school board member Sandy Evans; and Del. Kaye Kory. 
Students alarmed by the increasing number of school shootings are frustrated at the lack of action at all levels of government to control access to guns.

That was the consensus of the panelists who spoke at a Student Town Hall on Gun Violence June 4 convened by Del. Kaye Kory and Fairfax County school board member Sandy Evans (Mason District).
More than 150,000 students at more than 170 schools have experienced a shooting on campus since the Columbine massacre in 1999, Evans said.

The school board passed a resolution in February after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., calling on Congress and the state of Virginia to do more to regulate firearms.

Politics in class

Nearly all the panelists said they wanted to be able to talk about gun violence in class but were thwarted by rules banning political discussions.

“In most schools, there is a mentality that you can’t speak about these issues,” said Lena Ebadi a student at Stuart High School, who helped organize a walkout on March 14 after the Parkland shooting. “We need to make sure students are aware of their rights.”

Mayada Hassan, who also helped organize the walkout at Stuart, noted there is an after-school club, called Girl Up, where students wrote letters urging members of Congress and state legislators to address the gun issue. 

Discussions about gun violence prevention should not be characterized as political, Hassan said. “We need to change the climate so it’s built into the curriculum.”

Niharika Vattikonda, the student member of the FCPS school board, said administrators at her school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, approved the walkout, although there was concern about losing time for academics.

Student leaders at Woodbridge High School in Prince William County had to talk to the superintendent and principals for weeks to get permission for a walkout, said student Fred Hagen-Gates, of Youth for National Action. “And then it was specifically limited to honoring the victims. Talking about anything else could get you in trouble.”

Those teachers who are not afraid to talk about current events “pushed me to be aware,” said Ebadi. “The more politically aware I’ve become, the more powerful I’ve felt.”

Kory said she was distressed to hear there is no opportunity for conversations about current events in class. “I don’t think that’s right. You do need to talk about this as part of the curriculum or at least in after-school sessions.” Discussions about preventing gun violence “should not be taboo and should not be considered political.”

Kory was disappointed that the General Assembly didn’t even discuss gun control this year. The bills put forth by the Republican majority “were all about turning our schools into fortresses and arming school staff,” she said. “This is a much wider problem.”

Mental health

Students do need more access to mental health services, especially students who are bullied or feel isolated, said Vattikonda, but “it’s not a solution to our gun violence problem.”

“We should be careful about how we relate mental health counseling to gun violence,” she said, noting, “We are the only country to have this level of gun violence, so it’s not just about mental health.”

There isn’t one single solution, said Dolly Lebow, a sophomore at Falls Church High School. She called for officials to address gun restrictions and strengthen school security, as well as mental health. “We need to do all we can.”

“Anyone who commits a mass shooting obviously has a mental health issue,” said Hagen-Gates. Mental health is often used as a distraction by politicians to avoid dealing with gun restrictions, he said. Also, focusing on mental health stigmatizes people with real problems and makes them less likely to seek help.

Safer schools

Schools are conducting more lockdown drills, but students say they could be more effective.

During lockdown drills at Thomas Jefferson, teachers close the blinds, turn off the lights, and tell students to be quiet, Vattikonda said. But students won’t know what to do if there’s a shooting during lunch or while students are in the hall moving from one class to another.

Hassan said lockdown drills at Stuart aren’t that effective because they are announced in advance. The fact that administrators stand in front of the building greeting students as they enter every morning “makes me feel much safer,” she said.

Neither the students, Kory, nor Evans thought the idea of arming teachers is a good idea. And turning schools into “prisons” with fences and armed guards “would not be good for the stress and mental wellbeing of students,” Hagen-Gates said.

Concealed metal detectors might be worth looking into, Vattikonda said, but Hagen-Gates suggested that would not be feasible, as students carry also sorts of metal in their backpacks, from laptops to binders with metal rings.

The school board directed Superintendent Scott Brabrand to review all existing policies and procedures and submit recommendations on improving school safety, Evans noted. Those recommendations will be discussed by the school board on June 18.

Evans said a few measures have already been implemented: Anyone visiting a school has to be buzzed in, and when schools are renovated, the front office is reconfigured so staff can see anyone at the front door.

Students speak out

The gun violence issue has lit a spark among students who have gotten more involved in lobbying government to take action.

Ebadi’s message to lawmakers: “Please stop ignoring us. We need government officials to take charge.”

The students believe it’s important to address the issue through the ballot box but complained there aren’t enough opportunities to register to vote at school.

This issue should not be partisan, Hassan said. “People’s lives are at stake. We need to remember that.”

Hagen-Gates called for more funding for gun violence prevention. “The problem is not that we’re doing the wrong thing. The problem is we’re doing nothing.”

After a school shooting, there is a lot of talk, petitions, and protests. Legislation is proposed but fails to pass. Then it fades away and a month later there is another shooting, he said. “Don’t let it fade away.”

Evans promised to bring the students’ ideas to the school board. “We’re not going to let this die. We’re not going to let it fade away.”

“Students can have a huge impact,” she said. “Your voices are being heard.”

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