Do Chester students feel safe in school?

Chester Academy students say connection is key as they reflect on gun violence in wake of the Florida school shooting

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  • From left at the Chester Academy are students Joshua Hopkinson, grade 11; Brianna Ramos, grade 11; Julia Tomaszewski, Student Council President, grade 12; Isabella Steinberg, grade 10; John Kennick, grade 11; and Mia Calderon, grade 12 (Photo by Ginny Privitar)

"Words aren’t spoken enough nowadays, and sometimes the quickest way people think to resolve an issue is by violence."
Julia Tomaszewski

By Ginny Privitar

— The under-20 crowd calls itself "the mass shooting generation," and "Generation Columbine." They've only known a world where mass shootings are mind-numbingly common, so much so that most never make the national news. It takes a wholesale massacre, like the one that claimed 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, to get national attention, which usually quickly fades. But this time, the young Parkland survivors have started a movement with legs, inspiring others of their generation to change the course of history.

"If we all stood up and took a part and all said something and tried to bring more attention to this issue, then the government would take us seriously," said Isabella Steinberg, one of several Chester Academy students who talked to The Chronicle recently about gun violence.

Along with thinking about math and poetry and biology, these students have found themselves contemplating the merits of bullet-proof glass in classrooms and metal detectors at schoolhouse doors. The students said they felt safe at school, describing it as a welcoming, friendly place where most students know each other. But their warm feelings about their school community are complicated by feelings of uncertainty.

Brianna Ramos said the school should have at least one police patrol throughout the day, and a watch kept around the school.

"Anyone could get in at any time if they really wanted to," she said.

Mia Calderon said anything can change at any time.

"I’m pretty sure the kids at that school didn’t expect this to happen," she said. "It can happen to anybody."

Most did not believe adding more police would make them feel safer. Mia said it would change the atmosphere of the school and make her feel like she was in jail or in the military.

Only connectThe students preferred less-intrusive measures like the bullet-proof glass and the metal detectors. But what made them feel safest was their connection to other people. Several said living in a small town and attending a small school — where, as Isabella put it, "everybody in this town knows each other’s name or knows each other on sight" — is what made them feel secure.

"That’s one of the benefits of living in a smaller district because if somebody stands out as being unsafe, or a little dangerous, then action can be taken right away," Isabella said. "Hearing about the Douglas students who walked into school on a random Wednesday, thinking it was going to be a normal day, Valentine’s Day, and then something out of their darkest nightmare happens to them, their worst nightmare comes to life — I feel like that’s really shocking. I still feel very safe here, but it does implant in the back of your mind. It’s there now. It could happen without you even expecting it at all."

All agreed everyone should reach out to students who seem troubled or isolated. Mia and John Kennick said a hiking trip seniors took at the beginning of the year helped students bond.

"Trips like that, where we’re helping each other out, and being there for each other, gets us to know each other on a different level," said John. "I feel like that one trip made me know more people and talk to people that I really never even talked to because we might not be in the same classes or never really see each other or be in the same lunch period. So I think trips like that make us bond together and get to know each other on a different level." Julia Tomaszewski, student council president, said talking out a problem really helps.

"Words aren’t spoken enough nowadays, and sometimes the quickest way people think to resolve an issue is by violence," she said.

Josh Hopkinson agreed students can make a big difference in each other's lives.

"If students see someone down or they seem depressed, you can try to cheer them up, make their day a little better," he said.

Weary of 'thoughts and prayers'All of the students said background checks were needed to keep guns out of the wrong hands.

“I haven’t considered this before, but I’m thinking about it now,” John said. “We should definitely be able to write to our representatives, and they should listen to us because in a couple of years we’re going to be the people who vote them out of office if they don’t."

Josh said banning weapons isn't the way to go yet. But, he said they should be restricted.

"Making it harder doesn’t mean you can’t obtain them a all," he said. "It shouldn’t be as easy as it is."

Julia said the Second Amendment is difficult to defend since times have changed so much since its ratification in the 18th century.

"It was common to have a gun at home to protect you and your family," she said. "But times have changed so drastically that we cannot continue to follow the same things that were written years ago."

If guns were harder to obtain, it wouldn't necessarily mean fewer killings since more guns would be sold on the black market, said Julia.

"It’s hard to say," she said. But she feels some kind of action is needed.

"I’m tired of hearing that all we get as a response from the government is sending 'thoughts and prayers' because that hasn’t done anything, not even comfort the families that have lost their loved ones," Julia said. "I think that something has to be done."

She believes the debate about gun violence has gone on too long.

"It should be a topic that is talked about all the time and being pushed forward to resolve instead of pushed back and only resurface every time there’s a new shooting," she said.

Brianna plans to join the "March For Our Lives" gun-control rally in Washington, D.C., on March 24 that's being planned by Parkland students. She believes sales of assault weapons should be restricted because "children's lives are in danger, and you really have to think about that."

"I think that was a great move by Dick’s Sporting Goods (to stop selling assault weapons) because it’s really showing that they respect the people and that they really are listening," Brianna said.

John said entering gun purchases into a database will allow the weapons to be tracked, and excessive purchases of guns and ammo to be noted. High-capacity magazines are easier to control, he said, and shooters can’t kill as many people as fast without them.

"The government should pass laws that limit the rate of fire, so you can’t sell guns that have a high-capacity magazine," he said. "And what person hunting needs 30 bullets? Even in a home invasion, you don’t need 30 bullets."

John said metal detectors won't stop someone bent on violence, and that "arming teachers isn’t going to do anything."

"If a person wants to shoot up the school, they’re going to do it," he said. "They don’t care that the teachers may have guns. In fact, that may make it easier for them to get their hands on a gun."

And so, students returned again and again to their most trusted value: human connection. Mia suggested rotated seating in the lunchroom so that students get to regularly meet new people. Julia said more students should called down to the guidance office "to have a conversation, because those students maybe haven’t been heard, or made fun of, bullied, and they just need somebody to talk to or hear them out. Otherwise, things like this can happen."

John said that, whether as an individual or as a community, "we can all help in raising awareness by being vocal about it, hosting events, helping out that one person who is a little sketchy, but you can help them. And just being nice to everybody would keep most people from going off the rails. Those are the things I think we can do."

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