Students dig into gun law activism
Readers: This story was updated at 10:30 a.m. Friday, March 9 to reflect that Katie Liell previously lived in Connecticut, but not at the time of the Sandy Hook shooting.
MANCHESTER — Since the shooting of 17 students and educators in Parkland, Fla., and the discovery of a similar plot in Fair Haven last month, gun laws and school safety have been on area students' minds.
A group of those students from Burr and Burton Academy traveled to Montpelier last week to meet with the members of the region's Statehouse delegation and watch the state Senate take up proposed gun regulations.
More are headed for the March For Our Lives rally in Washington on March 24, on buses that several BBA alumni have pledged to partially or fully fund. One is already spoken and paid for, and as of Wednesday, the school and donors were trying to line up a second.
This Wednesday, BBA students will participate in a walkout in support of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on the shooting's one-month anniversary. The students, according to co-organizer Tyler Jager, have reached an agreement with school faculty and administrators and at Judy McCormick Taylor Field will spend 17 minutes there — one minute for every Parkland victim.
Katie Liell, a senior at BBA, attended the Montpelier trip and is among the organizers of the walkout, along with Jager and Cece Szkutak.
"We're try to figure out what exactly we're going to do during those 17 minutes," said Liell, who aspires to a career in government and politics. "It's simplistic but it's the most symbolic way to protest the lack of regulation and lack of safety that children are feeling in this country and in our schools."
For current high school students, the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, was a formative traumatic experience that has stuck with their generation. Liell had previously lived in Connecticut, not far from Newtown.
"I was in seventh grade when Sandy Hook happened, and freshmen were still in fourth grade and they're able to remember," Liell said. "It's such a horrific event that's somewhat uniting for our generation — and it seems that our generation has been plagued (by shootings)."
Emma Putney, a junior at BBA, was 12 at the time and remembers it well.
"Obviously every shooting that happens is upsetting, but Parkland set me and others over the edge. Those were children my age who had done nothing wrong, and were going about their lives when tragedy struck. And this was a tragedy that could have been prevented," Putney said. "In my opinion, our government needs to find a better solution on both how our country handles mental illness and also how we handle guns."
An historic opportunity
In a letter to the editor of the Journal last week. Jager expressed the fear of mass shootings shared by many students, and called for attendance at the March 24 march in Washington. It inspired a Burr and Burton alumni to help make wider participation possible.
Dr. Andrew Boyer, a radiologist living in The Dalles, Oregon, happened to read his hometown paper on the Internet and was impressed by the "passion and leadership" in Jager's letter.
"My first thought was hey, I can help out financially and help people go who couldn't afford to otherwise," he said. "I wanted to create something where no student or family that wanted to go but couldn't, or had to give it a second thought because of the expense, could attend."
Boyer and his friends from BBA, working with Chris Donnelly of Manchester-based Sugar Tours, have raised about $1,000 to help defray the cost of the trip, which includes a hotel stay, breakfast and Metro fare the day of the march. He's pledged about $5,000 more, and as of Tuesday donors were being sought to help fund a second bus, since more students are on a waiting list.
Donnelly was able to secure rates of between $165 and $195 for the package, and he said Jager convinced him to give the school a discount. Several adults are also taking the bus, including BBA chaperones.
"This time just feels different. I think it's cliche to say that high school kids and college college kids are our future, but this is their movement, this is their time. Moreso than any time that I remember," Boyer said. "They're being more adults than the adults are and are trying to lead a meaningful change in the world."
Liell, Putney and Aisha Navarrete, a junior, all plan to attend the march in Washington.
"I think it represents more than just a march. It represents the youth, and how are voices cannot and will not be silenced," said Navarrete. "I am more than thrilled and grateful to have the opportunity to exercise my voice and take advantage of the wonderful democracy that we are all a part of."
"We will be the generation that votes in the next election, so in my opinion it is already important that we become involved in politics," Putney added. "Being the generation who has lived through tragic events similar to the Parkland shooting, I believe that we need to work together to make schools safer. For all we know, we could be next. So in simpler words: these school shootings end here and now. "
Democracy in progress
Jillian Joyce, a social studies and humanities teacher at BBA and its Mountain Campus, has brought students to the Statehouse before. But last week, during a meeting with students about school safety and their desire to get involved, there was overwhelming demand to go to Montpelier and watch the state Senate debate bills dealing with gun control and school safety, including S.6, a bill mandating background checks for weapons purchases.
After meeting briefly with state Sens. Brian Campion and Dick Sears of Bennington, the students watched the debate unfold in the Senate chamber, or met with state Reps. Brian Keefe of Manchester and Robin Chesnut-Tangerman of Middletown Springs.
"The discussion of the S.6 bill was like nothing I've ever experienced," Putney, who is eyeing a nursing career, said by email. "The dialogue was important to hear as a young individual forming my own views and opinions on controversial topics. I learned that there is not always a right or wrong answer and sometimes it just comes down to what you believe in. Also using facts and statistics are crucial when making a point!"
Navarrete, who is interested in becoming an immigration lawyer, felt S.6 was "an essential part of taking a step in the right direction."
"One thing in particular that stood out to me when talking about a universal background check, was the "inconvenience" that some of the senators believed it would cause," she said. "If saving lives takes a little bit of inconvenience by going through a background check then I am sorry, but with all due respect, I think it is a hundred percent worth it."
Keefe was happy to see students from his district in Montpelier, saying he always learns something from such experiences and appreciates the fresh points of view.
"The discussion was cordial and respectful. The students' sincerity was front and center," he said. "We did talk about specific bills and they raised good points on such things as prior examples of when constitutional limits have been curtailed."
Campion added that there have been more high school students buzzing around the Statehouse lately than at any point in his eight years in office.
"One of the things we continue to see is engagement from young people around this issue, which is incredibly important and exciting," he said.
Liell, with her long-held interest in politics, said her visit to Montpelier was "an amazing experience."
"It's always been something I dreamed of seeing. And to see it in my home state, and on a bill that will affect me and my peers, was incredible to see in action," she said.
Reach Journal editor Greg Sukiennik at 802-490-6000 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
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