Editor’s note: This is the first in a five-part series examining school safety and students’ emotional wellness in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., shooting.
Across the country, teens are making their voices heard and saying they want adults to do more to make them safer at school after last month’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
The motivation to speak and to act has found its way to Westerly High School, where students are working together to become part of the Never Again movement.
Senior Quinn Chappelle stoked conversation throughout town and beyond with a letter that was published in The Sun soon after the shooting, which took the lives of 17 people, including 14 students. It took the form of a goodbye note to the community, “a note for when I am killed in a school shooting.”
Chappelle, 18, wrote that she didn’t feel safe at the Westerly campus, and implored readers to engage officials at the local, state and national level to demand change.
“It’s been a lot of frustration,” Chappelle said in an interview. “There’s been a lack of action at the local and national levels.”
The authorities are listening. In Rhode Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo signed an executive order last week setting forth a “red flag” policy to allow a judge to disarm someone whose behavior is seen as a signal of immiment danger. Other gun violence measures have been introduced in the legislature.
Still, the students are waiting for more. “People say this is a tragedy and a shame,” Chappelle said. “But what are people doing to make sure this doesn’t happen again?”
Her classmate and friend Dakota Busch, 17, said that the latest school shooting “made our administrators and our students realize how it can happen in our school. Our school needs some improvements, safety-wise.”
Chappelle’s critique sparked intense conversation at school.
“Even in my calculus class, we’ve been talking about it,” Busch said.
As it happened, just hours before the Parkland killings, Busch and Chappelle made a presentation in civics class about gun control and better mental health screenings.
“There’s a few people in our school that own guns, that are really into guns,” Busch said, and Chappelle said she knows several who are waiting to get a concealed-carry permit as soon as they turn 21 — something she finds “terrifying.”
Both said they’re against arming teachers.
“Being a teacher, that’s not what you signed up for,” Busch said. “In the Florida shooting, there was an armed police officer and three more showed up on the scene, and they didn’t pull out their guns.”
Chappelle, Busch and others plan to join a 17-minute student walkout on March 14 that will be part of a nationwide showing of solidarity among high school students to honor the Parkland victims and push for change. “We’re being allowed to be outside for the 17 minutes,” Chappelle said. “But then afterward, if you stay any longer, consequences will follow.”
Chappelle also spoke to the Westerly School Committee Feb. 28, offering a “sister letter.” It described the change she’s seen among her peers locally and elsewhere after the shooting, and she billed it as a hello letter, in contrast to her earlier writing.
“I see them call their representatives, I see them march, I see them fight,” she wrote. “They have hope in themselves and others … hello to all who have spoken and those who have yet to open their mouths. Hello to tough conversations and hello to middle ground. Hello to the Second Amendment and its limitations, and hello to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Both girls said they’re inspired by the Never Again movement. “We’re considered the ‘iGen,’ using technology, using social media,” Busch said. “And it’s just inspiring people everywhere and making them more connected.”
As to their youth, Chappelle said the present is always the time to act. “These kids are making good points. They’re eloquent,” she said.
At Chariho High School, most of the students The Sun talked with about the shooting said they hadn’t learned about it until after school.
“I was actually at track practice when I first heard about it,” junior Matthew Dickerman said. “Kids kind of talked about it and I looked at my phone and it was the breaking news coming in. At first, I didn’t see the vast scale of it, because the news was flowing in. Later on, that’s when it hit me, like wow, this happened again?”
Daniel Labelle, a senior in the criminal justice program at Chariho Tech, said he was shocked by what he saw. His instructor, Robert Wild, a former police lieutenant, expects his students to be informed about current events, and when Labelle got home and turned on the TV news, “When I saw it I was just … I was at a loss for words for what happened.”
Alexandria Williams, a senior, said her thoughts immediately turned to her family.
“I was devastated. ... I’m thinking ‘Oh my God, what if that happened to us?’” she said. “And I’m reading all these responses of kids at their school, about how some had siblings that might have passed away, and it gets me to think, my sister, if that ever happened — it just really hits your heart.”
The students said they felt safe at Chariho — up to a point.
“You really don’t think about it until you see something like this happen,” senior Luke Elson said.
Williams agreed. “I do feel pretty safe here, but I mean, anything could really happen, when you think about it. But I know that our safety’s pretty good and teachers have been closing their doors more lately than ever.”
Senior Sara Boschwitz said she had gone so far as to think of how and where she would hide if something were to happen. “A couple of days after [the shooting], I was up at night thinking of all my classrooms and where were the best places to hide in them if something like that happened,” she said. “I think the school, they do everything they can to protect us without scaring us.”
Labelle said he appreciated that the school doors are always locked.
“I play basketball and baseball, and there’s no way to get in the gym or the back locker room door without anybody’s help,” he said. “They’re always locked … so that makes me feel a lot safer.”
Everyone in the group agreed that adults should listen more to what students have to say about issues that affect them. But they said they weren’t convinced that walking out on March 14 was the best way to gain attention.
Dickerman is a member of Chariho’s Student Advisory Board. He said that Principal Craig MacKenzie had visited one of the board meetings and told the members that administrators were aware of the walkout and wanted students to be able to express their opinions.
“That being said, they were kind of cautioning us that leaving school or walking out at a designated time and place is about the unsafest thing you can do, so they were pushing us to think of other options to express our voice,” Dickerman said.
Elson said: “I understand doing it and I see the point of doing it, but I don’t know what it’s going to do for us. This should not happen at any school. I don’t know why it does happen, but us walking out? I know we’re going to get noticed, but I don’t see what it’s going to do for us.”
Boschwitz said she hoped teachers would understand the students’ motives. “I think that teachers will see it as something negative and that students are trying to protest the school, but I think that it’s not about any protesting,” she said. “I think it’s more students are coming together to realize that this is happening around us, and even though we’re just 15, 16, 17, 18 years old, we can still be active in our community and express our beliefs.”
Several of the students said they did not believe that arming teachers would make the Chariho campus safer.
“Even though people are teachers, you still don’t know what a person can do if they have a gun, and in a school setting, there’s still a whole bunch of people around that can easily do whatever they wanted to. I don’t see how that would help anything at all,” Labelle said.
Senior Alexi Fauzey said he wondered how bringing more guns into a school setting would make for a safer environment.
“When you’re trying to prevent guns from being in a school, how are you going to allow them in at the same time? That doesn’t make sense to me, because you’re just bringing in the danger,” he said, adding that “you never know who’s actually going to be the shooter. It could be a teacher. You just never know.”
For four seniors at Stonington High School, the Parkland shooting represented a turning point in the national conversation about school safety and gun control.
“This is the first time that social media, young people, the internet and the media have brought this to light in a completely different way because we’ve never heard from victims of a shooting before in this way, and I think it’s really, really powerful,” said Jessica Weber, recording secretary of the Student Council. She said she identified with the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School: “These kids were just like us.”
Riley Casadei, the corresponding secretary, said, “This shooting is definitely the straw that broke the camel’s back because it has got everyone talking, it’s brought so much attention to it.”
The graphic news coverage and social media images also made the tragedy more real, said Maddie Britto, a representative of the senior class. “It was even more scary with the Snapchat, showing the bodies, because that could be you,” she said.
Council President Madison Geiger said this killing was the first one her peers could identify with in a personal way. “We hear about 9/11 but we don’t remember it, we hear about Columbine but we can’t remember it, we hear about Sandy Hook but we can’t relate to it,” she said. “But you can picture yourself in this situation and this is the first time this generation has had that.”
The students agreed that the laws governing access to guns needed to be changed. “I think they need to change how easy and quick it is to get a gun,” Casadei said. “I’ve seen things in countries that don’t have mass shootings where they have a lot more background checks and training courses and waiting periods required for getting a gun, and I think that definitely needs to be put into place.”
Geiger said she was in favor of restricting who can obtain a gun but was against prohibiting specific types of guns such as automatic and military-grade weapons. “I think you should be able to own the gun you want to own, but the people who own them should change,” she said.
Casadei, disagreed, saying “It’s one thing to be interested in guns and go to shooting ranges, or you’re a hunter, but you don’t need to have a military, automatic weapon.”
As for arming faculty members, Weber said: “It’s a lot to put on teachers. When they go to college and get their masters degree, they don’t plan on having a weapon in their classroom, and I think if that is the route the country is going to take at a federal level, there is going to have to be so many specifics, like is the gun kept in a safe, and who has the code to that safe. I don’t know if it’s necessarily the right first step to be taking.”
Casadei said student access to the teachers’ guns in school could become a problem.
“How would you know kids couldn’t get into [the safe]; it could be abused very quickly,” she said. “I think adding more guns is not the solution at all and I think that would just take us a step backwards.”
Geiger said she thought arming teachers would be a benefit to students’ safety but only as part of a broader solution. And she was against extreme measures such as banning guns. “I don’t think this issue is a one-part solution; I think this is something that may have hundreds of different components to find out what the right answer is. It’s not black and white, frankly it’s somewhere in the middle.”
Weber noted that guns were deeply rooted in American culture. “It’s not realistic to say we’re going to arm all the teachers, just as it’s not realistic to say we have to take all the guns away,” she said.
The biggest change to come from the shooting has been empowerment, Geiger said. “It’s not just about gun control, it’s the fact we’re giving students a voice,” she said. “I see kids having a bigger voice on every topic, and if anything that’s one of the biggest victories to come out of this. I think it’s a huge victory for our generation.”