Students Plea To Take Action Against Gun Violence, Adults Fail Miserably

June 4, 2019 As “wear orange” events pop up around the nation this weekend to protest gun violence, and students march in solidarity demanding action from impotent lawmakers tethered to gun lobbyists, I can’t help but feel their pain, anguish, and stressed out psychological depletion from being placed in schools with absurdly misguided and often breathtakingly realistic “shooter drills” wreaking havoc and instilling fear in the name of “safety’”with zero regard for the mental health repercussions of an entire generation unable to vote yet themselves.

While positive lenses trumpet “The Kids are Alright” showing empowering civic action corollaries and media savvy protests of outspoken teens, like this journalist charting the damage “Since Parkland” as well as youth driven March for Our Lives rallies for voter turnout and policy change with promises of unyielding comeuppance to the powers that be…we must not turn away from the downside of day to day depression, hopelessness and damage being wrought as the 2018 APA study notes the skyrocketing stressors students face due to adult policies on topics ranging from gun violence to climate change and now most recently reproductive rights rollbacks and sexual assault.

Imagine feeling like your school safety, your body choices, your planet’s health are all being controlled by a reckless group of stakeholders who have zero firsthand impact of policies and practices they’re voting to uphold.

Old white men hold the power of our nation’s voting governance yet they are not the ones pummeled by PTSD inducing enactments turning schools into bloody war zones…They are not the ones being coached in “best practices” in schools for active shooters and armed assailant drills. They are not the ones trembling at the thought of teachers being armed when diversity puts the color of their skin in the crosshairs of violence by default.

They are not being raped yet forced to bear a child regardless with usurped laws and righteous religious zealots commandeering a women’s womb and shutting down access to abortion clinics. They are not watching their own families ripped apart with threats of deportation as younger siblings wail helplessly. They will be long gone before the resource constraints and wildlife and planetary extinctions emerge from poor policy fueled by short term greed with no “Planet B” in site…And lest we forget, this is not a generalist stereotype prompting the pushback of “#NotAllOldWhiteMen” it is merely pointing out the sheer numbers, volume and voice of power and control…youth defacto are impacted disproportionately, and in the immortal words of Paddy Chayevsky, youth are “mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore.” 

 

No wonder Generation Z is “stressed” and anxious

 

GenZ reports may tout the social justice fervor and burgeoning financial power of this generation’s optimism and energy in an ‘against all odds’ context…but there’s only so much youth can do to be bold and strong and use the spoken word to “raise awareness” as they march, plea, decry, engage, click and ultimately vote once they are old enough to do so, emerging “22 X 20”  strong. (22 million teens will be of voting age by 2020)

And sure, today, armed “school resource guard” Scot Peterson at Parkland is being pursued on child neglect criminal charges for his inertia and lack of judgment, but scapegoating isn’t the way to go for a ‘hang ’em high’ lens on justice either, given there is systemic blight at every level of gun control and NRA lobbying corruption juxtaposed with the Second Amendment, societally. Mass shooting tracker sites are a sad outcome of an epidemic public health problem, simply data dumping the horrors for “awareness.”

So today, I’m asking adults to put themselves in students shoes…FEEL the anger youth rightfully have…SUPPORT them in every possible manner…from voting, lobbying and leadership to fiscal and physical presence to make their voices ring through the airwaves as a clarion call for change. As they create #GunViolence hashtags to hub the latest massacres and use social media to amplify their angst and use digital tools to be informed and mobilize the youth vote, we can help by hearing and heeding their plea.

 

Media? Give youth the mic. Adults? Sit down. You have failed this generation.

 

At the YTH.org mental health summit this past month, it was resoundingly evident that student voices can and will carry the torch to address the nation’s most compelling and complex issues, from gun violence to reproductive rights and planetary health.

Using the spoken word, high school junior Julia Heilrayne lit up the audience with her passionate plea to take action against gun violence.

I now turn over the platform…and the mic. And call on all adults to do the same. 

Butterflies and Bluebonnets

Art of the Spoken Word, Created by Julia Heilrayne

My name is Julia Heilrayne. I am a junior at the Academy for Global Studies at Austin High School in Austin, Texas, and I’m here to share with you a spoken word style poem about the effect of gun violence on youth in America.

Before I begin, I want to introduce you to this young girl. On December 11th, 2017, she was shot by her father, who then shot himself, citing his divorce with the girl’s mother as the reason for the shooting. The girl and her father died before authorities got to their house.

The piece I am about to share with you is titled “Butterflies and Bluebonnets,” and is inspired by this little girl’s death, the Parkland shooting, and the culture of gun violence that I have grown up in.

I wear a bracelet on my wrist.

The words on the outside say “Thanks for the butterflies and the bluebonnets-”

They’re a reminder of what we did together the last time I babysat her.

When I read them, those butterflies and bluebonnets, colored with crayons and brought to life with imagination so real that it can only be that of a child fill my mind.

The words on the inside say her birthday, her name, and the day she was shot dead- They’re a reminder of who she was, and will always be.

When I read them, a face, a smile, a laugh, a memory, a girl, fill my mind- and it’s her. And she’s there,
And then there’s a gunshot,
And she’s gone,

Shot down to nothing more than pictures, memories, and inscriptions on a bracelet.

She was a happy little girl, she loved to be outside, she had more love in her heart than most adults-
But there’s one thing that sticks with me,
It’s one of the last things she said to me.

I can still hear her voice in my head, asking me,

Asking for 5 more minutes to keep drawing, But it was already long past her bedtime.

And I think about those words
“Just 5 more minutes,”
Punctuated with puppy dog eyes, carefully curated for situations like this, to maximize the chance I’ll say yes,
And I wish I had given her those 5 more minutes,
She was just a child-
And all she wanted was 5 more minutes-

And I think about the times we all want 5 more minutes-

Children beg for 5 more minutes before bedtime,
My body aches for 5 more minutes before I have to get up in the morning, I take in cool night air and wish for 5 more minutes of summer,

But then school starts,

And high schoolers from Columbine, Parkland, and Sante Fe Want 5 more minutes,
They’ve got this last assignment, and they just want to turn it in.

College kids from Virginia Tech
Want 5 more minutes,
They’ve been meaning to call home, and they just want to hear their moms’ voice again.

Little children from Sandy Hook
Want 5 more minutes,
They’ve already written their last letter to Santa, and they just want to make sure he gets it.

Before the sound of a gun leaves them crying, screaming, bleeding,
With holes in their body that outnumber the very years that they have lived.

And when someone drops a book in the hallway, When someone pops a chip bag in the cafeteria, When someone steps on a plastic water bottle outside,

When someone sets of the fire alarm unexpectedly, We freeze.

We wonder if we are about to become just another gun violence statistic, Just another thought,
Just another prayer.

We wonder if we are about to become just another complacent politician’s tweet, Just another name, in a long list of forgotten identities,
Just another victim.

And then our spiraling minds flashback to reality.

And we remember we have homework. History homework.

And we remember we should be focusing on names like- Christopher Columbus,
And Abraham Lincoln,
And George Washington,

And Thomas Jefferson,

But instead, the names, rolling off our tongues like they have a million times before are the names’ of victims-
Jamie Gutenberg,
Joaquin Oliver,

Meadow Pollack, Aaron Fies

Just to name a few

We know the shooters’ name’s as well- But I don’t want to list them right now,

If I started listing names like… Nicholas Cruz, the Parkland shooter,

No,

wait.

I don’t want to think about them right now, Because if I started thinking about people like… Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter…

God why can’t I stop

All I can see are their faces, plastered across the nightly news,
All I can hear is the newscaster saying “We’re reporting live from…

Parkland, Florida, Newtown, Connecticut, Blacksburg, Virginia,

Where…

17 students and their teachers,
20 children between the ages of 5 and 6, 33 college students and professors,

Were killed today.”

And in a swirl of biology and pre-cal homework,
Caught up in a cyclone of English essays and Spanish orals,
Engulfed in the wave that comprises my thoughts,
There is a feeling,
And that feeling is
Fear
And the sound of the clock ticking before there is another school shooting. And that feeling is normal?

On Capitol Hill I can hear politicians saying they wants us to be safe at school, Apparently they want us to actually learn something-
But all we are learning is how to balance the stresses of childhood and adolescence- With the stress of knowing that at any moment someone could turn an AR-15 on you, And then

Boom

Everyone around you is dead.

I have had teachers give talks to their class, “If there’s a shooter,”
They say,
“Let me be your shield.

I would rather take a bullet for each of you,
Than have any of you take a bullet while I just stand and watch.”

Teachers are afraid
That Congress is asking them to die for their students, but they’re prepared to do just that.

My friends and I have had conversations where someone says that in a school shooting, They’d almost rather die than survive,
Because at least then they wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore.

Students are afraid
That they’ll be dead soon, but they wonder how much worse that could possibly be.

I was a camp counselor this past summer and I remember one day one of my first grade campers Asked me if it was safe to be at camp, since it was held at a school.

Children are afraid
To even be at a school, because what if there’s a bad guy with a gun.

And all we can do as the helpless children that America keeps gunning down is Scream, cry, march, and write slam poetry,
And hope that someday, somewhere,
Some kind hearted politician will stand up for our right-

Our right to live,
Our right to walk into school every morning,
Our right to be confident we will return home in the afternoon

While our mental health struggles against the weight of school and life, It falters and often fails when you add in school shootings,
And while your Algebra teacher instructs you,

You solve the equation,
And it equals a generation who is crying from the fear,
Shaking from the anger,
And ready to fight from the spark of passion that has been lit in all of us.

My eyes, sparkling with what I believe to be that fiery passion, but my moms says are tears, slide over my bracelet,

And I can feel her here with me.
And I can hear the gunshot that took her away from me.
And I can tell, in the back of my mind, that someone is trying to talk to me. And I go through the motions of confidence, and I hope people believe me, But really, I am just as scared as the students standing next to me.

A day in the life of a youth gun control leader:

More thoughts by Julia Heilrayne…

Just over a year ago, I was a lead organizer and speaker at the Texas Capitol Walkout for Gun Safety, that took place on April 20th, 2018- the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting. As organizers, we reached most of our audience through social media, using primarily Instagram, and Twitter to reach students, and Facebook to reach parents, teachers, and other adult supporters. Although the power of the internet gave us access to the estimated six to seven thousand people who showed up that day, it only took us a week or two of having accounts set up before we realized the double edged sword that social media can be for activists, and particularly, young activists, who tend to be more vulnerable to attacks anyways.

“I’m going to show up to where the busses are loading. I will shoot you all up. I’m going to make sure that you all die. Watch your back,” read one particularly threatening message we received.

Texts, DM’s, Tweets, comments, and emails started pouring in. Students expressed everything from enthusiastic support to death wishes. Parents said that they wouldn’t allow their children to attend the event. Random members of the public called us “stupid libtards.” Early on in the organizing we were forced to keep the identities of the organizers secret, in an attempt to minimize the number of personal attacks we received. But, as the day approached, and we did more media interviews, and put out more publicity, the wall of anonymity that we had built around ourselves fell away completely. The attacks switched from attacks on the event to personal threats. We ended up being forced to hire and lawyer and work closely with law enforcement the entire time, making an in depth police report with every threatening message we got, some of which resulted in arrests.

As the day got closer still, organizers started taking more mental health days – sometimes skipping school or missing out on family obligations due to the sheer amount of anxiety and fear we were experiencing from the messages, comments in the hallway at school, and other forms of attacks. Now we were being personally told to go to hell, that we were stupid kids, unorganized, incapable, and accused of being puppets of powerful democrats.

The threats were mostly digital, but the support mostly was as well. Just as terrifying messages poured in, so did the kind, uplifting, supportive messages. People told us we were doing the work that adults should have been doing years ago. People thanked us. Students from schools across the city and state started asking how they could help, started organizing sign making parties, and raising money for the busses and other expenses. Within our organizing committee, freaked out 2 am phone calls became the norm. Texts in the middle of the school day filled with lots of supportive emojis became like the air we breathed, and there was absolutely nothing like the group Skype calls where we intentionally forgot about our phones, and allowed ourselves to just be 16 again- laughing with each other until we cried or crying with each other until we laughed.

The impact of digital interaction, the way it shaped the walkout, our leadership experience, and ultimately, the way many of us have continued with our activism after the event is immense, and taught us so much about the damage- and the good- that digital advocacy can create. As hard as online activism may be at times, despite the threats and comments and public attacks, for as long as America keeps shooting us in our classrooms, we will continue to use the platform that we do have- that on social media- to advocate for better gun laws, to call out politicians who are being bought by the NRA, and to support each other, as we navigate the world of going to school, never knowing if this goodbye is the last goodbye.

As the adults in our lives, be your role a parent, a teacher, a doctor, or the lady who’s groceries we check out, I urge you to follow our lead, to join us in the fight for a safer tomorrow, to realize that we are your future, but we are also your present, and to recognize, however hard it may be, that this fight is one of life and death for us and other tens of millions of other children and teenagers across the United States.

–Republished in full, with permission by Julia Heilrayne

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Comments

  1. Michael Watson says:

    I thank you for this really courageous work that you and your fellow students have done and continue to do to make the world of your peers and your community a much safer place.
    I can only imagine how worrying it must be to live with the threat of being killed via gun attacks at any time.
    I hope you can keep up this vital work.

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