Town hall lauds student activism on gun violence
Following Wednesday’s gun safety rally and walkout hosted by the Washtenaw Youth Initiative, members of the Washtenaw County community gathered Thursday night to discuss what more can be done in the fight for gun control. Jeanice Kerr Swift, superintendent of Ann Arbor Public Schools, introduced the event, acknowledging and applauding the activist work of students in the area.
“We respect the First Amendment rights of our students in Ann Arbor schools, and I am so impressed with their knowledge, with their conviction, with their ability to critically think and to articulate what their generation is feeling right now in our public schools,” Swift said.
Swift also apologized on behalf of adult community members on their inability to effectively prevent the shootings taking place in schools across the country.
“I feel very sorry that as adults, we have not been able to solve the problem of safety in our schools,” Swift said. “I know that many of you feel the same way. It’s regretful that this problem continues to worsen and that we’ve allowed that to continue.”
The event hosted at Pioneer High School involved a panel of student activists spanning different parts of Washtenaw County. Pioneer had the most student representatives, but students from Lincoln and Skyline High Schools were present as well. All were members of the Washtenaw Youth Initiative, a student-based organization aiming to create gun law reform. Throughout the town hall, the students tackled topics such as the Second Amendment, voter apathy and what policies they want to change.
Pioneer junior Sarah Lewis described her alarm after hearing the news of the Parkland, Fla. shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. She immediately thought of friends she had in the south Florida area, and said she saw posts on Instagram honoring the Parkland victims even before the names had been officially announced. She urged the audience to think about the effect gun violence has on them, even if they haven’t been personally involved in a shooting.
“I have friends who are hurting, and I am hurting along with them,” Lewis said. “I don’t say this for condolences because I never personally knew the victims myself. I say it to remind you all that this is not so far away. There aren’t so many degrees of separation. This could have easily been our reality.”
University of Michigan students and faculty members have had similar reactions of shock and alarm to the Parkland shooting, prompting them to think even more about shooter preparedness and prevention. Campus members have previously called for improvements to the emergency alert program and harsher gun control legislation.
Skyline senior Liam Keating echoed the University’s sentiments for reform. He said Washtenaw Youth Initiative’s two largest policy proposals are banning assault-style weapons and raising the minimum age for gun purchases to 21. He emphasized his belief these demands should be comparatively bipartisan in the grand scheme of the gun control debate.
“These are supported by huge majorities,” Keating said. “So I want you to understand that this is a pretty moderate position. We’re not trying to push the nation where it doesn’t want to go. Considering these majorities and considering that our nation is a democracy, it seems unthinkable that these policies aren’t in place.”
Pioneer junior Clara Núñez-Regueiro credited activist movements from the past for the widespread support and passion surrounding the current student gun control movement. She specifically noted the 1960s civil rights movement, Chicano student walkouts, die-ins during the AIDS crisis and the Black Lives Matter movement and their struggles and abilities to establish a base of activism to build upon.
“We’re really here due to the efforts of all these people,” Núñez-Regueiro said. “As students, parents and educators, it means a lot that you’re here to continue that legacy.”
As of last year, the University’s Counseling and Psychological Services reported the University’s student-to-counselor ratio sits at about 1,200-to-1. Lincoln senior Max McNally sees similar disparities reflected in his high school and brought mental health issues into the gun control conversation, mentioning the extremely low social worker-to-student ratio at Lincoln.
“My school has about 1,200 students and we have three social workers in the school,” McNally said. “That’s not okay for that school or for any school in general. We’ve seen too many suicides in recent years and there’s no clear, equitable access to services to tackle mental health issues.”
Pioneer junior Seraphina Botero said she attended the event because of her passion for the movement and her belief in the panelists’ platform. She said she thought the community aspect of the event was vital to the movement, especially in discounting misconceptions other people may have.
“I think it’s important because I knew that there were some misconceptions that kids in the Washtenaw Youth Initiative were being controlled by the administration or the face of a campaign that is piloted by adults,” Botero said. “But by actually having a formal dialogue with members of the community, we’re enabling us to open up and not only accept help, but answer questions.”
Celeste Kanpurwala, the local events and data entry lead of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said she looked forward to collaborating with the Washtenaw Youth Initiative, especially in tangent with a subset of her organization, Students Demand Action. She met with Pioneer senior Emma Roth, one of the leaders of Washtenaw Youth Initiative, earlier this week to work on joining forces.
According to Keating, the town hall is by no means the last event to be seen by these students. Keating said the Washtenaw Youth Initiative will continue to put their best efforts into making their voices heard and creating change.
“We want to use that motivation and drive to make our voices heard,” Keating said. “We don’t want this to stop at a walkout or at a rally. We have tons of events coming in the next few months. We’re trying to make sure that this is sustained.”