Carin M. Smilk | JE Feature
Just days before massive gatherings affiliated with the student-led March for Our Lives are predicted to further focus the nation’s attention on stemming the tide of gun violence, Great Mills High School, about 70 miles south of Washington, D.C., became the site of the 17th school shooting nationwide since Jan. 1.
Tuesday’s gunman, a student armed with a handgun, was fatally shot by a school resource officer after the teen opened fire, injuring two students. It was a much different outcome than what took place Feb. 14, when a former classmate gunned down 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. But for the distraught parents and students coping with the ongoing threats of gun violence, even the Maryland event this week is one shooting too many.
Laurie Leavy, of Coral Springs, Fla., had to wait 45 minutes huddled with other mothers and fathers last month under an overpass near Stoneman Douglas before learning that her 15-year-old son, Jason, was safe. “It was excruciating,” she says. “Terror was the closest thing I felt.”
She relates that “he was in the building on the third floor, locked in a classroom with other kids and a teacher.” Like so many others that day, he heard gun shots and screaming, crying and calls for help. Two members in his marching band were among the fatalities.
That week, Leavy emailed every Florida legislator in the state who received donations from the National Rifle Association, and sent about two-dozen checks made out for “Thoughts and Prayers.” A stay-at-home mom (she has an 11-year-old son as well) and Sisterhood co-president at her synagogue, she had to do something.
While earlier this month Florida passed bipartisan legislation for gun restrictions and increased school-safety measures, led by Republican Gov. Rick Scott, advocates say a lot more needs to be done.
“It’s like a Band-Aid on a cut finger,” says Leavy, who will participate in the March 24 walk in Cleveland, where her family is going for spring break. “It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough.”
There are an estimated 300 million guns in the United States — one for nearly every man, woman and child.
To be fair, a great number of Americans feel that guns remain a Second Amendment right, and as such, should be left well enough alone. There is nevertheless some wiggle room on background checks, age limitations for purchases, the types of guns that can be bought legally and certain modifications that can be made on them, like bump stocks.
The issue of general access to semiautomatic rifles — the type of weapon used by the Parkland shooter — remains one of the main concerns.
“It’s unbelievable that our country allows this, these kinds of weapons,” says Leavy, noting that so many other places around the world do not.
In fact, while Washington, D.C., is the main venue for the March 24 event, the momentum will be felt as related events are scheduled in locales as far away as Cork, Ireland; Helsinki, Finland; Bogatá, Colombia; Mumbai, India; Vilnius, Lithuania; Tokyo, Japan; all over Western Europe; and in Tel Aviv, Israel.
‘We’re talking about people’s lives’
Sarah Clements, 22, will participate in the Washington march, joined by her mother. The Georgetown University senior is also scheduled to speak on Friday afternoon at a university-sponsored forum titled “What Makes Movements Successful? How Students Can Change Policy.”
For the past five years, Clements has become used to the idea of being a leader, showing up at all kinds of events advocating for gun-control legislation and school safety.
It’s not really that surprising. After all, she grew up in Newtown, Conn.
In fact, her mother was a second-grade teacher on Dec. 14, 2012, when a young gunman shot and killed 20 children — between 6 and 7 years old — and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Of the multiple weapons he brought with him was a semi-automatic AR-15 assault rifle.
“I think I was always interested in politics, but after the shooting happened, after the shock of it, I felt so much anger,” says Clements, who at the time was a junior at Newtown High School. Along with people of all ages, she joined the Newtown Action Alliance and hasn’t looked back.
“We started changing the discussion about guns, school safety and the public interest,” she says. “What happened at Sandy Hook first opened the doors to ongoing conversation about these issues.”
Now, she says the Parkland students have taken off, prompting a wave of social action that has crossed the country and the world. And that makes Clements feel “cautiously optimistic.”
She points out that she is not against guns, per se. The person who wants to hunt or to have a handgun for their own protection is not on her radar. She is pushing for common-sense gun laws and getting guns out of the hands of the wrong people.
At the same time, she aims to invigorate students, so they become involved in their communities, register to vote and take their newfound energy to the ballot box.
Like others who are seeing young people find their voices, being engaged gives her hope. A double major in government, and justice and peace studies, who is active in Georgetown’s Jewish Students Association, she says she wants to tell her grandchildren one day how she was part of change for the good. How in the Jewish notion of tikkun olam, she helped make the world a better place.
“This is a huge moment for our country,” she states. “We’re literally talking about people’s lives.”
‘Focus on the positive’
Lauren Bell has also been busy since Parkland.
The 17-year-old resident of Sarasota, Fla., decided that she could help get teens registered and even pre-registered to vote (in Florida, teens can pre-register at ages 16 and 17). To that end, she has been encouraging teens in person and via social media to do so, and plans to continue these efforts through November.
She also took the bullhorn and spoke on National School Walkout day on March 14 in front of 300 students at Riverview High School who were protesting gun violence and advocating for school safety. Another national walkout is planned for April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine High School mass shooting.
“I want to stress the importance of voting, in all elections, at the state and local levels, too,” says Bell, whose father’s side of the family lives in the Philadelphia suburbs. “I want to focus on the positive.”
She says students have had enough with lockdown drills and Code Reds; they want to be able to go to school and simply feel safe. As such, she is pushing for more security measures on campus. She’s also part of a group at her school called “Students Stand Up.” And on Saturday, she is set to march locally in Sarasota, where she is also scheduled to speak.
“I want to see change,” insists Bell. “This can’t happen again. We shouldn’t have to live in fear at school.”
Rabbi Moshe Rapoport, program director at the Peltz Center for Jewish Life in Mequon, Wisc., notes the uncertainty young people feel today — a feeling of being unsettled.
He says that isn’t likely to go away as high-schoolers head to college campuses, where in addition to concerns about guns and physical safety come worries about religious safety as well, including anti-Israel sentiment.
“There is a great wealth of negative energy in the world today,” he says. “You can’t control what happens in life, but you can work to bring about positivity. That can happen in the form of good deeds, of everyday kindnesses. It’s very powerful.”
Rapoport, a Chabad rabbi who has worked with teens and college students for more than 20 years, stresses that this idea isn’t naïve; it’s not blind. Still, in relation to gun violence, small moves may seem … small.
“It doesn’t solve the big problems, the big discussions,” he acknowledges, “but it does empower people, intellectually and spiritually. This is something teens can do. They can educate; they can be positive.”
He also talks about how to heal. A statement in Proverbs, written by King Solomon, reads: “Anxiety in the heart of a person causes dejection, but a good word will turn it into joy.”
“We all need that,” he says. “Even rabbis.”
He noted that just last month, shortly after the Parkland shooting, more than 2,500 teens participated in the annual CTeen Shabbaton in New York City, where on a Saturday night in Times Square, a Torah was dedicated to those who lost their lives at Stoneman Douglas. Many students from the Florida community were there; all teens got to write a letter in the new scroll.
“To see so many come together, thousands, to dedicate in memory something to people they never met before, it brings some comfort. It shows that others are not alone in their pain; the whole Jewish nation feels it,” affirms Rapoport.
‘This is their moment’
Public action and attention is changing the way America views gun violence and school safety — all because of these kids.
“They are finding their voice and pushing for a seat at the table,” states Amy Krulik, CEO of the Kaiserman Jewish Community Center outside of Philadelphia. “And they are harnessing the power of technology to get the word out and mobilize their friends.”
Krulik recalls a time when student engagement meant handing out fliers, hanging posters, wind-shielding cars or hitting the phones. “This generation’s method of promotion is much more wide-reaching, much more effective in sheer numbers,” she says. “Their proactivity has been years in the making. The kids have been paying attention.
“This is their moment — a moment in our political time, in our national psyche, about seeing certain things change,” says the mother of two grown children. “Parkland was the tipping point. It made them stop and say, ‘Wait, we can be heard, too.’ ”
Consider the fact that those voices joined together to help organize more than 800 events taking place worldwide on Saturday related to March for Our Lives.
As for Krulik, she knows a thing or two about school safety. In January 2017, she and other staff members led the evacuation of more than 225 people, many of them preschoolers, as a result of a bomb threat — one of many made to JCCs across the country. The Perelman Jewish Day School adjacent to their building evacuated another 200 elementary-school-age children.
She looks at it as part and parcel of her job.
As does Rabbi Rapoport. After all, what is the alternative?
“Our youth,” he says, “is the greatest resource we have.”