ALEXANDRIA, NJ - Most of the Delaware Valley High School student body walked out of their classrooms and into the Hutchins Gym on Wednesday, March 14, in conjunction with a national demonstration against gun violence.
But at Del Val, students were not so much walking out, as they were walking in -- to a forum that outlined the national deadlock: anti-gun fear vs. the right to bear arms.
The walkout was organized by Maya Forman, a senior from Kingwood Township. She worked with the administration, whose primary concern was that if students walked out of the school building, they could be at risk of the very danger that sparked the walkout. So the roughly 500 participating students – of an enrollment of just over 800 -- left their classrooms at 9:30 and went to the gym and sat in the bleachers. No one went outdoors.
In the gym, five minutes of silence were observed in memory of the 17 people who died in the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting on Feb. 14. Then Maya called students one at a time to take the microphone and speak their piece.
Most of the two dozen students who spoke expressed fear of continued school shootings and demanded tighter gun control. Voter-registration forms were laid out on a nearby table.
Rachel Baransky, a senior, said that at age 12, when the Sandy Hook shooting occurred, “I thought, surely legislators would create some kind of protection for us, to help us feel safe in school again. But still, after 7,000 more children no longer living since Sandy Hook because of gun violence, I am still waiting’’.
“I am nearly as old as the anniversary of the Columbine shooting. In my lifetime, we have legalized same-sex marriage, taken down Osama Bin Laden, and even managed to take laundry-detergent pods off the market once kids started to try eating them. So why, after all the tears wept, all the flowers cut for funerals, all the marriages that will never be had, the prom dresses that won't be bought, the driver's licenses that won't be given, and of course, all the bloodshed and lives taken, can we not produce some kind of regulation on weapons that can kill more people in a minute than my heart can produce beats?
“Eighty-two percent of weapons used in mass shootings are bought legally. The assault rifle used in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting was part of that 82 percent. To me, that statistic is frightening, and it calls for change.
“The thing is, those in protest are not asking for much: Regulation on military-grade, assault weapons that ordinarily many people don't have. Better mental health services. Thorough background checks. And at least an attempt to keep guns out of the hands of those who should not be wielding them. Students, if you hear something, and it doesn't feel right, report it. Let's help keep each other safe. And furthermore, let's all spread kindness, and love one another. It may not end the problem, but compassion is key to a better future, for certain.”
Freshman Jordan Clapp said she wants to be a teacher, but her parents are asking her to rethink it because of the danger. Sophomore Sarah Nerwinski told of a recent visit to Scotland where she was informed that because of gun control that country simply doesn’t have school shootings. Other students, at least one of them weeping, told of their daily fear for their loved ones and themselves, and outrage that so little is being done about it.
However, sophomore Kyle Doremus said Americans need guns “to defend ourselves against other people and even against our own government,” citing the American Revolution, and also for hunting. “I refuse to believe that taking guns out of people’s hands is going to resolve the issue,” he said. Tyler Machado, a senior, said, “Guns are not the problem; people are.”
More than one student pointed out that the AR-15, the semi-automatic rifle used in the Parkland shooting, is not an assault rifle. The “AR” stands for Armalite Rifle.
Senior Jacob Konnecke said that anti-depressants have been a critical factor in many school shootings, calling their use a “prescription for mass shootings.” Another student endorsed arming teachers or stationing police on campus because the response to an attack must be instantaneous.
At the end of the session, after the lunch bell had diminished the audience to about 80 students, Maya said, “We have been coined Generation Columbine” by the news media after a mass murder in 1999, and the shootings continue with alarming frequency.
“It is the very thing that plagues our minds every time we have a lockout drill, every time we look around a classroom to find where the best place to hide would be,” she said.
Politicians are unresponsive, she said, so contact them “and to stir up a fuss so that they can no longer ignore us. We can’t let this end after today.” She pressed for more school resources to help troubled students, and rigorous background checks for gun buyers.
In closing, she said, “Generation Columbine should not listen when we are told we don’t understand, or when we are told we are too young and foolish to make a difference. We know what pain is. We know what it is like to attend school and be told that we might be a victim… we can take this pain and make it our motivation to push for change. When we allow ourselves to be silent, we are allowing violence to continue, so yell louder.”
Afterward, Principal Adrienne Olcott said, “I am so proud of our students! Their opinions were divided, but they were united in respect and courtesy. And that’s really something to cherish these days.”