NC students take a stand against gun violence, express deep concerns about school safety

NC students take a stand against gun violence, express deep concerns about school safety

- in Education, Top Story
Hundreds of students from Durham’s Jordan High participated in the walkout.
Photo credit: Ryan Monroe

Tallulah Cloos, 18, sometimes ponders ideal hiding spots if an active shooter were ever to terrorize her Buncombe County high school.

It’s not easy, she says. A.C. Reynolds High, located just southeast of Asheville, has a wide campus with an abundance of open spaces.

“I thought it was a weird thing to think about,” she says. “But some of my friends told me they were having these same thoughts. It’s sad that we have to think about this, but it’s necessary.”

Cloos isn’t the only one. Multiple North Carolina teens who spoke to Policy Watch this week talked of harrowing conversations inside school about how they would respond to a campus shooter, one month after a gunman wielding an assault rifle allegedly killed 17 at a Parkland, Fla., high school.

“I would like to say, ‘No, this would never happen at Riverside,’” said Joala Downey, a 17-year-old at Durham’s Riverside High School. “But honestly I’m not sure. My friends, we all just try to be positive. No one wants to think this will ever happen to them, but I don’t think the kids in Parkland thought this would ever happen to them.”

The anniversary of the Parkland shooting triggered an avalanche of campus protests across North Carolina and the United States Wednesday. Students at an estimated 3,000 U.S. schools walked out of classes for 17 minutes to memorialize those killed at the Florida school and to demand gun reforms from state and federal policymakers.

As of press time, most in North Carolina had gone off smoothly, although one Wake County school reportedly postponed their protest after the school received a threat.

And in the Asheville area, students like Cloos said their walkout was put off by recent snowfall, which forced local school district leaders to cancel classes for the day.

Photo credit: Ryan Monroe

Yet Aminah Jenkins, a 17-year-old junior at Durham’s Charles E. Jordan High, estimated more than 800 students participated in a walkout at her school Wednesday. It’s the second walkout at Jordan High since the February shooting at Parkland, says Jenkins, and this one drew twice as many.

“We’ve had conversations in our classes about what we would do if (a shooting) were to happen here,” adds Jenkins. “What’s the safe spot to hide? It’s something no student should ever have to think about.”

Sen. Terry Van Duyn, a Buncombe County Democrat who serves as party whip in the state Senate, said the stories told by North Carolina students Wednesday reflect a new reality for K-12 pupils.

“I remember bomb threats when I was in high school,” Van Duyn said. “But we all knew you’d go outside, enjoy the weather and go back in. We never felt unsafe. Our schoolchildren don’t have that luxury. When these things happen, they’re afraid, and that’s not right. All they’re asking for is common sense regulation of weapons.”

Wednesday’s wave of walkouts was just one day of protests, but gun control advocates say they’re planning more demonstrations in the months to come. For K-12 students across the country, that will include a March 24 march on Washington, D.C.

Students in Parkland and across the country, including in North Carolina, have been actively organizing since the Valentine’s Day shooting in Florida.

And while students in some states faced discipline for participating in Wednesday’s protests, there were no reports of similar activity in North Carolina by press time Wednesday. Nevertheless, the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) urged school administrators in an open letter signed by state ACLU Legal Director Chris Brook and attorney Sneha Shah not to punish students for taking part Wednesday.

Hundreds of North Carolina students took part in the #NationalWalkout to protest gun violence.
Photo credit: Ryan Monroe

“As educators, this tragedy presents a unique opportunity to take essential lessons of civic responsibility and political discourse beyond the classroom,” they wrote. “We encourage you as educators to guide your students toward healthy civic engagement and to teach them the value and history of peaceful protest in creating change in our great nation. Just 58 years ago, North Carolina high school students participated in sit-ins in Greensboro and sparked our nation to act against segregation. Those sit-ins showed us the power of student voices. Today, once again, students can use their voices to make a difference.”

Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, a Raleigh-based group that advocates for teachers, said the organization “wholeheartedly” applauds students for their involvement in the ongoing protests.

“Nothing makes me prouder than to see that it’s student-led,” said Jewell. “I always say these students are not the leaders of the future. They are the leaders of today.”

Meanwhile, N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson said in a statement Tuesday that local districts would make the call on how to handle campus walkouts.

“I believe local officials should communicate their expectations clearly, in advance, about how they will handle these events and whether disciplinary action could result,” Johnson said. “I know safety is a top priority for school officials across the state.”

“I don’t think student walkouts should take away from important learning time in the classroom,” Johnson added in his statement. “There have been plenty of well-planned student protests that have taken place outside of classroom hours.”

Students who spoke to Policy Watch say they hope the demonstrations galvanize North Carolina and U.S. legislators into some form of action, including new limitations on the use of AR-15 assault rifles and a higher minimum age for gun purchases.

“Understand that these walkouts aren’t simply students leaving school,” said Jenkins. “These are the next generation of voters who care about their voices and want to have a say. We want to see lawmakers respond in a way that benefits us, not just public acknowledgements of the walkouts but public action.”

Likewise, Downey said she hopes the Durham protests will unify students.

“I’m hoping that this really makes it clear to everyone that Riverside is not okay with this, and Durham is not okay with this,” said Downey. “And that, even though this happens so much, there are people who care about it. Thoughts and prayers are not enough.”

North Carolina lawmakers have been reluctant to commit to any specific reforms after last month’s shooting. A legislative committee on emergency management is expected to hear a presentation on “firearms training” Thursday morning from an N.C. Department of Justice official and a Triangle-based company that, according to its website, specializes in “public safety and civilian training.”

However, state House Speaker Tim Moore launched a select committee on school safety in February. GOP leaders on both committees did not respond to Policy Watch interview requests this week.

Moore’s Republican-led select committee is expected to hold its first meeting next week, and some conservative lawmakers have already spoken openly about the controversial prospect of arming teachers.

Gun rights groups say policymakers should eliminate “gun-free zones,” areas like schools that they say are targeted because of a lack of armed intervention.

North Carolina gun control advocates bristled at those recommendations this week. And Jewell called it “one of the most dangerous ideas” he’s ever heard.

“It’s heartbreaking to see these are the options now,” said Jewell. “We don’t want to take sharpshooting classes in a teacher training program.”

A recent Elon University poll reported 78 percent of North Carolina teachers believe it’s a “bad idea” for teachers to carry guns in school, while 18 percent thought it was a “good idea.”

Meanwhile, Van Duyn, who sits on the joint emergency management committee, said she’s “willing to talk about anything that makes our schools safer.”

But the Democratic senator said she opposes recent calls to arm teachers. “The suggestion that more guns are going to make us safer, there’s just no research to bear that out,” Van Duyn said. “I believe public policy should be informed by facts. The facts tell us that more guns make us less safe.”

Indeed, students who talked to Policy Watch this week said they believe arming teachers will only make students more fearful in schools.

“What we’re trying to do is provide a safe environment where people are comfortable learning,” said Downey.

And these days, after Parkland, students no longer feel that’s a sure thing, says Cloos.

“Parkland really made everything more personal and made shootings less of an abstract thing. It looked like any high school.”

Photo credit: Ryan Monroe