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Students and officials grapple with the nature of guns and protest
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Across the nation, students are organizing events in which they walk out of their schools during the school day as a means to call for tighter restrictions surrounding the purchasing of firearms. These movements erupted in response to the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.

One such nationwide walkout, organized by the Women’s March Youth EMPOWER group, is planned for  Wednesday, March 14. A march on Washington D.C., called March For Our Lives, has also been planned by students across the country for Saturday, March 24.

These planned nationwide protests have gained traction through social media, particularly Twitter. One of them, called National School Walkout, currently has 111.6K followers on its Twitter page (@schoolwalkoutUS). These particular walkouts are planned to be held on April 20.

A student’s right to be involved in these protests is rooted largely in the pivotal 1969 Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.

The case surrounded students Mary Beth Tinker, her brother, Paul Tinker, and their friend, Christopher Eckhardt, who were all greeted with suspension by the principals of their school district after refusing to remove their black armbands, which they wore in protest against the Vietnam War.

A suit was filed and eventually taken to the Supreme Court, with the outcome being that students do not shed their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate. The ruling also stated that a school may only restrict the free speech of its students if they “materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.”

For instance, all schools maintain the right to punish students for walking out in protest because that constitutes a disruption in the school’s ability to properly operate.

Principal Dr. Greg Mathison said it is important to create a school environment free of disruption in which all students feel as if they can speak their minds and express themselves.

“My goal is to make sure we value the learning experience here in the classrooms, but as well as make sure students feel that their voices can also be heard,” he said.

Along with this, Dr. Mathison said it’s just as important for a student to ensure that they’re not only voicing their opinions, but respectfully listening to the opinions of others as well.

“What’s been lost in society is civil discourse, civil discussion, being able to say ‘this is what I believe and here’s why,’ and somebody listening not to win an argument, but to see another person’s perspective,” Dr. Mathison said. “If we could get there and teach our students to do that, we will be at a much better place than we are right now as a country. I think we have to teach students how to be engaged in dialogue and improve our listening skills, and I think it comes down to ‘I’m not listening to win an argument, I’m listening to truly understand.’”

As for the subject of the country’s recent spread of student protests, and the issue of school shootings, Dr. Mathison said the two most important things to keep in mind are to have positive relationships with other members of the school community and to follow the concept of “see something, say something.”

Dr. Mathison also said he encourages students to download the Rockwood app on their phones and utilize the anonymous tip feature if they believe a fellow student is going to hurt themselves or someone else. The feature is completely anonymous, and various administrators will receive the tip and take immediate action.

There are numerous school districts throughout the country that have taken a hardline position toward the walkouts. The Needville Independent School District in Texas, for instance, plans on suspending participating students for three days.

Despite this, a myriad of universities have promised applicants that any punishments they are met with for participating in a walkout will not harm their likelihood of being admitted. DePaul University, Yale and Dartmouth are only a few colleges that have expressed such reassurance to student protesters.

Other schools, like the University of Chicago, have expressed support for the nationwide demonstration while not stating whether suspensions due to involvement in a walkout would be ignored by the admissions office. Devin Haas, senior, has committed to the University of Chicago, and said that he is content with the school’s statement and hopes that other schools follow suit.

“I think that there’s nothing more patriotic than exercising your constitutional liberties to stand up for what you believe in,” Haas said. “There’s a reason we have a First Amendment. I would love for all colleges, and all high schools, to recognize this as a legitimate exercise of the First Amendment, and I hope that more colleges send out such statements saying that if you are standing up for what you believe in, as long as you aren’t being violent and you are within the limits of your constitutional rights, that you will not be punished.”

One’s First Amendment rights can be exercised not only through measures such as protest, but through social media as well. Haas said he appreciates students using social media platforms to let their voices be heard, but they should realize that it needs to paired with direct action to truly be effective.

“At the end of the day, tweeting about a problem won’t solve it,” he said. “But getting out to vote for people who will have the power to solve it, that’s how problems get solved.”

Haas said some specific solutions to gun violence that he would like to see go into effect include banning the bump stock, stricter background checks and raising the minimum age to own a semiautomatic firearmfrom 18 to 21. He is also extremely supportive of the Fix NICS bill, which outlines repercussions for federal agencies that don’t report records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

“I’m very glad that it does seem to have bipartisan support, at least in the Senate,” Haas said. “I don’t know how the House is looking right now, as there are more conservative members in it. I’d love to see that get passed.”

While Haas said he believes in people’s right to own guns and is a supporter of the Second Amendment, he believes that, along with every other amendment in the Bill of Rights, it is not absolute. Because of this, he said he sees no need for people to own weapons like AR-15s.

“You do not need an AR-15 to hunt,” he said. “There are plenty of other guns you can use for self-defense or home defense. You can’t conceal carry an AR-15 just because of how huge they are. I feel like AR-15’s specifically are weapons where there’s just objectively no use for their private ownership.”

Haas said that while he is staunchly against the stigmatizing of the mentally ill, mental illness still plays a role in a large number of mass shootings.

“I would support expanding funding to mental health services for people who do have various kinds of mental illness,” he said.

Zara Abbassi, junior, also said mental illness plays a role in mass shootings, and that extensive background checks should be utilized to provide more insight as to whether a particular mental illness actually contributes to one’s potential for violence.

“I think that we need to come up with some sort of test or method that can analyze ‘these people have mental illnesses, but they’re safe, they’re not gonna do anything harmful’ versus the people who will harm people, and that’s how we should decide who should obtain firearms,” Abbassi said.

Abbassi said she also supports measures such as background checks and banning semi automatic weapons, but that her biggest goal in participating in gun control protests is to help in making the amount of people who are passionate about reform apparent to lawmakers.

“The big thing is to show how many people care and want there to be change,” she said. “We need to start somewhere, and I want to start with showing how many people care.”

In the past, Abbassi has attended two women’s marches and the March for Science in 2017. She has also written to state representatives.

“[Activism] is important in my life because I’m a very opinionated person, and I’m very passionate about certain issues and policies,” she said. “I like to be involved in the government and bringing action to my beliefs. So it’s very important that I have a way to exercise that and I do that through activism, whether it’s through peaceful protesting or just sharing my opinion.”

Something that frustrates Abbassi, she said, is when detractors brand student protests as being ineffective and not worthwhile.

“What do you suggest I do?” she said. “Just sit here and let this continue to happen? This is just going to happen, and we need to get used to it? I’m not okay with that, and I don’t think anyone is.”

Michael Wu, senior, said he doubts the effectiveness of student protests, although he does think it is important that those involved are standing up for what they believe in.

“I’ll wait and see how effective it is,” Wu said. “But if I had to guess, I don’t think anything will actually happen.”

Wu said he doesn’t believe the recent nationwide demonstrations will lead to change in the way guns are purchased and handled because the attitudes held by those involved are not rooted deep enough in historical sentiments.

“It’s too much of a spontaneous effort,” he said. “If enough people made a really extended effort to do something, then [change] might happen. It can’t just be inspired by current events, it has to be a long, deeply held belief. That’s the only way to change something.”

Expanding on this, Wu said that the nature of how protest begins is often misconstrued by popular belief as more sudden than it actually is. “It might seem counterintuitive because we think of revolutions as spontaneous and coming from popular sentiment, but most of them aren’t spontaneous and are a long time coming. ‘Revolution’ is a misnomer.”

While he said he doesn’t have a strong stance on the issue of gun control at the moment, Wu said he is sure of one thing: gun control research is imperative.

“Guns are involved in a lot of deaths, yet compared to the research we’ve done on a problem such as cancer, it’s completely negligible and nonexistent,” Wu said. “And you can do research. You could figure out a way to do causation studies on gun control in certain areas and the effects. It could be a science, but we haven’t made it one yet.”

Wu said that effective research on the matter is needed, but an exact cause of mass shootings will never be identified. He said he believes the nature of protests will always remain vague and likely ineffectual.

Jackson Maurer, senior, said student protests can be effective only if they’re part of a much larger, expansive movement that has strength in numbers.

“I think this is going to do nothing from just MHS, but if it’s a nationwide thing I think it will start some changes,” he said.

Maurer describes himself as politically moderate, with his views on social issues leaning more toward the left.

He said he believes in some gun control measures, but not to an excessive degree. For instance, he is supportive of background checks, but not of raising the minimum age to own a gun.

“I don’t think the age should be moved to 21 because then you shouldn’t be able to serve in the military [at age 18] because you’re handling guns,” he said.

One thing he leans more toward the right on, he said, is his view on arming teachers as a means to combat school shootings.

“I think it would be a good approach, just in bigger schools,” Maurer said. “It would be appropriate for more suburban schools like MHS that have near 2,000 students because there are a lot of people that could potentially get hurt and somebody needs to be there to stop it other than just one armed officer.”

Along with their students, teachers have found themselves being drawn into the discussion of what actions need to be taken to minimize school shootings. President Trump in fact recently condoned the idea that arming teachers would be an effective way of combating the issue.

In response to this, teachers have taken to social media with the hashtag #ArmMeWith to express distaste with the notion that they should be armed, and instead bring attention to resources they believe would be more effective, such as increased funding for mental health resources in schools.

Amy Doyle, social studies teacher, said that while arming teachers may seem like an effective way to keep students safe at first, examining all the different possibilities reveals that this might not be the case.

“I think at the end of the day it would contribute to a chaotic environment if something were to happen,” Doyle said. “Not to mention when the police are coming in, not knowing who the actual shooter is. Then you have the slew of problems of ‘where do you keep the guns?’ You can’t keep them in the classroom because somebody could get ahold of them. If you keep them locked in an office, then how are you going to get to them on time?”

Doyle, who teaches Contemporary Issues, said she has seen a lot of discussion among her students in light of the recent shooting in Florida.

“What I’ve noticed is, with the juniors and seniors especially, [student discussion] really echoes the beliefs of the adult population,” she said. “You guys are adept enough, and you know enough just as much as anybody else does. I see similar types of conversations happening.”

Doyle said the vast majority of her students believe in keeping guns out of the hands of violent people and keeping them in the hands of law-abiding citizens. She sees more divisiveness in the question of how this can be achieved.

“What I’ve been seeing more recently is the recognition that there needs to be some sort of regulation,” she said. “In the last ten years I’d say that’s a shift because it used to be, ‘there should be little to no regulation’.”  

Throughout her years as a teacher, Doyle said she first noticed a drastic change in the culture of the schoolhouse after the Columbine High School massacre on April 20, 1999. This shift in the cultural climate involved an increase in the prominence of school shootings and their related issues in public discourse, she said.

“That’s when we started doing intruder drills, and we didn’t have intruder drills prior to the Safe Schools Act that was passed in 1999,” she said. “I would say ever since those intruder drills people have been thinking about and talking about [school shootings].”

Scott Szevery, social studies teacher, also said he saw school shootings become a much more preeminent issue after Columbine.

“There had been other school shootings on a smaller scale, but when it happened there, we were all so shocked and thought, ‘this is a crazy, one-off event’,”  Szevery said. “The sad thing is how routine it’s become.”

As a history teacher, Szevery said he first heard about student protests going on in the area when a student brought it up in relation to the protests of the civil rights movement that the class was discussing at the time.

Szevery said he believes that any student who is planning on participating in a demonstration should look back to student protests of the past and try to emulate the values upheld by those, such as meticulous preparation and extensive knowledge of one’s rights.

“Do your research, do your homework, find out exactly what’s allowed, and talk to the powers that be as well because there are a lot of adults in this building that are very sympathetic and would want to help the students in some way, shape, or form, to be effective,” he said. “The last thing anybody wants is, whether you’re a student or an adult in the building, a pointless event.”

In addition, Szevery said that to yield actual results, he believes the nationwide school walkouts should not be the only course of action taken by students.

“I don’t know that a walkout does much,” he said. “Is the state legislature ever going to know that the MHS students walked out? Probably not, unless they lived in the area. Even if they lived near here, maybe not. If you want to get in the way and effect change, you have to make sure you think it through and do it in a way that actually could make a difference, as opposed to a gesture that might feel good in the moment but doesn’t have any practical effects.”

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