Editor’s note: This commentary is by Charles Honey, editor-in-chief for School News Network and father of two graduates of Grand Rapids Public Schools. SNN welcomes reader responses and alternative commentary.
After hearing students read aloud the names of high schoolers killed in a mass school shooting, City High/Middle School senior Ellie Lancaster looked out at a grieving crowd of her peers and implored them to keep fighting for an end to these horrific massacres.
“I hope you save the names of the victims and never forget them, and make sure that our (legislative) representatives never forget them,” she said.
Her classmate Gabrielle Rabon spoke with equal passion.
“This cannot happen anymore,” she said forcefully. “Enough is enough. This is the last time. It has to be.”
That was five years ago.
Ellie, Gabrielle and their fellow students had gathered behind City High/Middle to mourn the murder of 17 students and staff at Parkland, Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School by a lone gunman wielding an AR-15 style semiautomatic rifle. They were part of a national student walk-out calling for stricter measures to prevent such shootings, leading up to March for Our Lives rallies in Washington, D.C., and Rosa Parks Circle a week later in March of 2018.
All across America, students rose up and said, Enough is enough. If you adults won’t take action to protect us, we will.
Five years later, Ellie Lancaster, now a Michigan State University graduate, was back at Rosa Parks Circle, along with students from Grand Rapids, Rockford, Cedar Springs and MSU, still grieving, still calling for action, still reading the names of mass-murdered students and teachers. Called “Remember Their Names,” the event honored those senselessly slain while doing that most American of duties: going to school.
But the list had grown by a lot since Parkland: Santa Fe. Oxford. Uvalde. MSU. Nashville. And this time, students and adults read not 17 names, but 175 — a somber recounting of students and staff killed in mass school shootings since Columbine, in 1999.
For Lancaster, it was an emotionally wrenching reprise of the 2018 rally, which she helped organize with other City students. Since then she earned a bachelor’s degree at MSU and a master’s at the London School of Economics, only to return to Grand Rapids and experience the horror of her brother, now an MSU student, surviving the shooting there, almost five years to the day after Parkland.
“It’s been a horrible readjustment coming back to such a terrible reality,” Ellie told me, especially coming back from the U.K. where mass shootings are virtually unheard of. “It’s horrible to accept that as your reality, just accept the potentiality for violence as your reality. No government should be OK with that. That’s absolutely insane.”
I had organized the event, independently of School News Network, along with two fellow former Grand Rapids Press reporters, Pat Shellenbarger and Jeff Cranson. We stepped out of our normal arms-length journalistic roles to do something, anything, in response to the endless succession of mass shootings in our country. Like those brave March for Our Lives students, we said, “Enough is enough.”
But five years after Parkland … 11 after Sandy Hook … 24 after Columbine … I have to wonder, will enough ever be enough?
Will enough lawmakers wake up to the madness that’s gripped our country and take the actions needed to save these children’s lives? Will enough of them overcome their fear of losing their seats by defying the NRA and getting weapons of war out of our homes and schools? Will enough Americans demand they do so, and make sure their children can’t get their hands on those weapons?
Politicians opposed to gun-safety legislation often counter that stronger mental-health services are needed instead, as if those two were mutually exclusive. Many a high school student will tell you that their schools need both: more mental-health services and better protection from gun violence.
In fact, several students told SNN just that, in a recent roundtable that touched on issues they’re concerned about. It quickly became apparent that the possibility of being shot in class was very much on their minds, and that student anxiety and depression are very real.
Listen to McKenna, a senior: “It’s really scary to think that we’re used to having people bring guns into school and shoot people.” And Kaymin, a junior: “You don’t want to think about your school being shot up. But it’s a very real thing. And we’re all real people that it’s a very real possibility of it happening to.”
To be sure, schools and lawmakers are doing things to address students’ mental health struggles, such as increased state funding for program grants and services. And a recent package of state gun-safety bills includes safe-storage requirements that potentially could have prevented recent incidents of GRPS students bringing guns to school, prompting the district to ban backpacks for the rest of the school year.
Those laws and funds are important steps in the right direction. But they don’t do anything to stem the bloody tide of military-style assault weapons used to mow down children in classrooms, shoppers and concert-goers in our uniquely American insanity. And they don’t do enough to address the increasing mental health crisis among adolescents, especially among girls and LGBTQ+ youth.
If you went to school fearing you could be slaughtered, do you think you might have anxiety issues too?
So enough with bifurcating mental health and gun safety. Both are needed and a whole lot more. Students are telling us this, and have been for several years now. The so-called adults in the room need to listen and be the actual adults in the room.
As for Ellie Lancaster, she intends to keep working against gun violence while pursuing a career in social research. She’s encouraged by Michigan’s recent gun-safety laws, and attended Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s signing Monday of red-flag laws allowing authorities to confiscate guns from someone considered a risk to themselves or others. But she admits it can be hard to keep the faith.
“Sometimes I definitely get discouraged because it feels like no matter what we do, like this is still a country where a lot of people either feel unsafe or feel like violence is the best response for things. And I think that’s indicative of a very sick society that needs healing.”
But she’s convinced that shootings can be prevented not just by regulating guns, but by “helping your community heal or getting people access to mental-health care.”
“There’s always something you can do to help someone and hopefully prevent something,” she added. “That personally gives me a lot of hope.”
More personal commentary on gun violence:
• In America, opportunity cost is the lives of children