Community reflects on gun violence, safety in year since Parkland shooting

Wednesday, February 13, 2019 - 7:56pm

Ann Arbor students and residents at the March of our Lives at Ann Arbor Pioneer High School March 24, 2018.

Ann Arbor students and residents at the March of our Lives at Ann Arbor Pioneer High School March 24, 2018. Buy this photo
Max Kuang/Daily

On Feb. 14, 2018 — one year ago today — a young gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla, leaving 17 people dead. This shooting was not the first of its kind. At this point, the United States had seen a number of other school shootings. And since Parkland, a wave of activism and media attention has gripped the nation as students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas publicly demand stricter gun control.

A month after the shooting, thousands of students nationwide walked out of their schools to protest gun violence. Students in Washtenaw County held a rally hosted by the newly formed Washtenaw Youth Initiative, an activist group of high school students formed in reaction to the Parkland shooting.

Zaynab Elkolaly, a senior at Washtenaw Technical Middle College and member of the WYI executive board, reflected on the reasons the Parkland shooting garnered so much attention. She specifically noted how Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ status as a predominantly white, wealthy school drew more sympathy.

“School shootings and kids being shot in schools, not necessarily just mass shootings, have been very, very common before Parkland,” Elkolaly said. “But the thing is Parkland, a white, suburban school, was the catalyst needed for the gun violence prevention movement. This happens in areas that are predominantly black and less wealthy all the time. But you can tell that the government only really cares when there are wealthier students on the line.”

Elkolaly said she has continued to see this whitewashing in the gun safety movement in the year since Parkland.

“I learned further how whitewashed the movement really is,” Elkolaly said. “Like any organization, Washtenaw Youth Initiative has its flaws. Many people don’t want to join because it is a predominantly white group when gun violence affects people of color more … there’s still a socioeconomic discrepancy in activism. It’s extracurricular for some and a mode of survival for others.”

These observations, Elkolaly said, show how much the movement needs to include intersectional voices. Keeping this in mind, Elkolaly emphasized her appreciation of the work of the student activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. But Elkolaly noted it’s important to understand how privilege helped them succeed.

“I don't want to discredit what the Parkland kids have done,” Elkolaly said. “They’re absolutely amazing and they started this massive movement. But it was definitely their privilege that helped them get there.”

Public Policy senior Kellie Lounds, chair of the University of Michigan’s chapter of College Democrats, echoed many of Elkolaly’s points, applauding the work of young activists and bringing to attention the fact that gun violence most frequently affects low-income communities of color.  

“It's a problem in low-income communities and communities of color and all sorts of other groups that don’t get the spotlight,” Lounds said. “And so I think activists helping acknowledge that while also using their experiences to elevate how important this issue has been a big change in this past year especially with the activism of the kids from Stoneman Douglas.”

LSA sophomore Dylan Berger, president of the University’s chapter of College Republicans and a columnist in the Opinion section of The Daily, said the focus on issues concerning gun violence and gun control is the result of numerous shootings, and that the Parkland students’ activism is what brought the issue further into the spotlight. Berger said while he strongly believes in citizens’ rights to the Second Amendment, a position not held by many of the student activists, he appreciates the conversation being brought to the table.

“I think the Stoneman Douglas shooting was the straw that broke the camel’s back in that now that the shooting has happened and a whole bunch of intelligent young people, whether we agree or disagree with them, are coming out and speaking on this issue, people are paying attention,” Berger said. “I disagree with a lot of what activists have said on the issue of Second Amendment, but I appreciate that they’re bringing up the issue. We need to discuss it.”

Outside of activism and political realms, faculty and staff within the University work in various ways to combat gun violence. John-Mark Branch, a police sergeant within the Division of Public Safety and Security, is the police response expert for active attackers. Branch said DPSS has been trained in active shooter response consistently since the Columbine shooting in 1999. He explained Parkland did not affect their efforts, as they were already up to par, but DPSS reviewed Parkland along with all other shootings that occurred throughout the year for safety risks.

“We have actually been one of the departments in the county who’s been training active shooter since Columbine,” Branch said. “We have several active shooter instructors… I am an instructor for that. We do refreshers, courses every year, we do annual training for active attackers, active shooters … There’s so many (shootings) that happen throughout the year, obviously we get that information, we review (the response) — what went wrong, what went right … but as far as our response, it pretty much hasn't changed.”

Branch said DPSS’ active attacker response protocol is to immediately send a dispatch to the location once they’re made aware of an active attacker and to respond based on the specifics of the situation. If the attacker is inside, officers will enter the building and stop the threat as quickly as possible. The approach is also affected by the type of weapon, as a firearm is more dangerous than, for example, a baseball bat.

According to Branch, all of the Washtenaw County police agencies are trained for active attacker response in the same way. Branch is a member of the SWAT team that conducts an annual refresher course for the county in this training. Branch said SWAT makes sure all the local police forces are on the same page.

“In Washtenaw County, we have the metro SWAT team that is comprised of University of Michigan police, Washtenaw County Sheriff, Ann Arbor City, Ypsilanti Police, Pittsfield Township and I believe Eastern Michigan,” Branch said. “I’m a team leader on the SWAT team there and our SWAT team does the annual active attacker training each year. So every agency in the county is trained the same way.”

DPSS also holds active shooter presentations for faculty, staff and students within the University. Branch said the active attacker safety tips DPSS recommends are encompassed in three words: run, hide and fight. These methods are taught to incoming University students during new student orientation.  

University faculty are also utilizing a research approach to gun violence. Patrick Carter, assistant professor of emergency medicine, is a leader on the Firearm Safety Among Children and Teens Consortium project. This initiative, aiming to prevent gun violence while taking into account gun ownership, launched a website in November 2018 with data, fact sheets, videos and other resources regarding gun violence prevention.

Carter said in the aftermath of Parkland or any mass shooting, people bolster their efforts to reduce the problem of firearm injuries. He said it’s crucial to keep in mind gun violence greatly affects people on a smaller, daily scale as well.

“I think anytime there’s a mass shooting, it serves to redouble the efforts of people who are working in those fields, and I think we have to remember that the problem of firearm injuries is not just about the mass shootings,” Carter said. “We see those and they’re horrific and tragic events, but there’s also a daily toll related to gun violence that we have to remember that affects people too, that that is part of the prevention discussion.”

Doctors can only do so much to help a person injured by a firearm when they see them in an emergency room, Carter said. He explained the issue can be more effectively addressed by researching evidence-based prevention measures.

“We see the end result within the medical field of injuries and frankly, given the legality of what I can do for a patient who comes into the emergency department or the hospital with a firearm injury, at that point we’re pretty far down in the spectrum in terms of my ability to intervene to help that person,” Carter said. “We can do so much more on the prevention end to prevent them from ending up in the emergency department in the first place if we apply evidence-based research and solutions to the problem.”

To base the team’s research in the community, Carter said the project incorporates perspectives of gun owners and trainers. This is important, he noted, in order to have a realistic conversation about the issue.

“I don’t think you can have a dialogue around how to solve this problem and approach evidence-based solutions to the problem without engaging people… having the ability to own and use guns is an important part of the discussion so we find solutions that are gonna work and not fall through the cracks,” Carter said.

One year after the deadliest high school shooting in the U.S. history, acts of gun violence keep happening, including an incident at Central Michigan University in March 2018 and a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in October. Yet the efforts surrounding gun violence continue — especially among activist youths, according to Elkolaly.

“I think we’ve discovered just how powerful the youth voice really is,” Elkolaly said. “Even if we're minors and unable to vote, we have so much power. That’s really what I want young activists to know. First of all, your representatives serve you. You say jump, they say how high. And when you band together, you can accomplish so many great things.”