Local students push for change in wake of Florida school shooting

Joining ranks with national movement

Leading efforts at City High/Middle School to protect students from mass shootings are (from left) JD Lancaster, his sister Ellie Lancaster and Kevin O’Neil

Ellie Lancaster was nearly 1,500 miles away from last week’s school massacre in Florida. But she felt the emotional impact of the 17 who died there as she went to classes at City High/Middle School.

“Every time there’s a school shooting, for a few days afterward students are a little bit afraid,” said Ellie, City’s senior class president. “Even if they feel safe in their environment, there’s still that feeling of, ‘Oh my gosh, this really can happen anywhere.’”

She’s had that feeling before, such as when 26 first-graders and adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary school in 2012. But this time, Ellie and her classmates have had enough. They’re taking action to try to stop mass school shootings — because the adults haven’t.

Ellie, her brother JD and classmate Kevin O’Neil are taking the lead in organizing a school walk-out on March 14, for 17 minutes in honor of those who died. They’re also planning a March 24 trip to Lansing to coincide with a “March for Our Lives” in Washington, D.C., and possible activities around April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre.

Related column: Actions speak louder than words

JD Lancaster: “A lot of our teachers said they would do everything in their power to save us if something happened”
JD Lancaster: “A lot of our teachers said they would do everything in their power to save us if something happened”

“It’s important to us to show the state government and federal government that students don’t want to stay silent, or be complicit in this ever happening again,” Ellie said firmly. “We are actually very angry that it keeps happening, time after time, and nothing seems to happen except that we have more code-red drills.”

Fellow senior Kevin O’Neil put it bluntly: “School is a place of learning. Not a place of worrying about your life.”

Shootings Becoming the Norm

They and other area students are joining a national army of protest led by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Those students launched a movement called #neveragain, helped organize the nationwide March for Our Lives and called on lawmakers to enact gun-control measures. An impassioned speech by senior Emma Gonzalez went viral.

‘School is a place of learning. Not a place of worrying about your life.’ – City High senior Kevin O’Neil

Their efforts are encouraging adults that real change may finally be possible. Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was slain, told the “Morning Joe” news program, “These kids are my hope. These kids won’t stop.”

Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal announced this week the entire school district would take part in the National School Walk Out at 10 a.m. March 14.

Ellie Lancaster: “We want people to realize we refuse to accept that this could ever be the new normal”
Ellie Lancaster: “We want people to realize we refuse to accept that this could ever be the new normal”

“I stand with my students!” Neal said in a prepared statement. “I stand with my teachers, school leaders, and support staff! I believe it is important that we as a school district unite in support of this national school walk out, to send a clear message to state and federal lawmakers that action is needed to update gun laws and ensure our schools are safe and secure learning environments.”

Elsewhere in Kent County, students are also starting to get involved. Rockford High School students requested a meeting with Superintendent Michael Shibler, who said he would support a “constructive endeavor” by students.

“As adults we haven’t been able to move the bar much, on the congressional level or state legislative level,” Shibler said. “Maybe the students may have more of an impact. I’m so sick and tired of our lawmakers dodging it. How many more mass murders have to occur before they start to do something?”

At Northview High School, Principal Mark Thomas said he will form focus groups to hear students’ concerns about safety, and that he would respect any students who want to honor the Florida victims with a peaceful walkout. “One of our goals is to raise ethical citizens,” he said. And student Maddie Miller wrote a strongly worded opinion piece in the school news site The Roar.

For Ellie Lancaster and her City High classmates, the Florida shooting was another brutal reminder of a reality they’ve always known. Born after Columbine, they’ve seen school shootings become all too routine – and are tired of adults not addressing them.

“Now school shootings are starting to become the norm, which is horrible,” Ellie said. “People who are no longer in the school system don’t realize how terrifying it is that anybody could just walk in (and start shooting).” Too often such attacks are blamed solely on mental illness, she added: “Anybody could have access to really dangerous weapons, and could do a multitude of damage for any reason at all.”

Time to Start Voting

While mental illness is a serious problem, most mentally ill people do not engage in mass killings, JD said. Despite the millions poured into school security systems, and the code-red drills in which students huddle in darkened classrooms, easy access to deadly weapons such as the AR-15 used in Florida must be curbed, including age limits and stricter purchase permits, he and others argue.

“Ripping away the guns is not the answer,” said Kevin, vice president of the senior student government. “It’s more important that we focus on making it harder to get them. Not everyone should be trusted with deadly technology.”

‘The government is doing nothing. Instead, the victims are the ones who have to fight for themselves.’ – City High senior Ellie Lancaster

He is encouraging fellow students to get involved, lobby legislators and, if they are turning 18 this year, to vote in November. It’s time for students to make their voices and votes known to elected leaders who have failed them, Ellie says.

Kevin O’Neil: “I hope this situation allows us to open our eyes and see the importance of voting in elections”
Kevin O’Neil: “I hope this situation allows us to open our eyes and see the importance of voting in elections”

“It kind of hurts that politicians and legislators think that the answer to solving this is drills at school or arming teachers,” an idea floated by President Trump, she said. “That sort of implies to me they are OK and understand that school shootings are being normalized.”

Lawmakers should use their power to not let school shootings be normalized, but are doing nothing, she added. “Instead, the victims are the ones who have to fight for themselves. The victims are the ones who have to scream for help, instead of the people with the power just helping.”

Her generation eventually will have the power to change laws, Ellie said. Until then, “We just to have to make as much noise until they can’t not listen to us anymore. Until they have to help us, and save us.

“The blood is ultimately on their hands if they do nothing.”

Editor’s note: If you know of student activities in your school district addressing the issue of school shootings and student safety, please let us know at SNN@kentisd.org.

CONNECT

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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