Hundreds demand end to gun violence as Middlebury students prod lawmakers to act

MIDDLEBURY — “We need to do this until the term ‘school shooting’ is no longer in our vocabulary,” said Greta Hardy-Mittell, a Middlebury Union High School senior.
On Wednesday, the East Middlebury resident joined around 300 demonstrators — students from MUHS, Middlebury Union Middle School and Middlebury College plus many local residents of all ages — in a gun-control rally on the Cross Street Bridge in Middlebury.
The approximately 50 high school students had initially planned to walk out of classes and hold a vigil in honor of the victims of the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., before joining Middlebury College students and other community members on the bridge. The demonstration was one of more than 3,000 planned at schools around the country.
However, the Middlebury walkout and vigil in front of the high school were postponed to an as-yet-to-be-determined date after school was cancelled Wednesday due to heavy snow.
The bad weather did not prevent large crowds from gathering on the bridge at 10 a.m., where protesters met, waved signs calling for lawmakers to take action, and observed for 17 minutes of silence, one for each victim of the Parkland shooting. Many chanted and carried colorful signs with slogans such as “Enough is Enough” and “No More Silence, End Gun Violence.” Drivers in passing cars honked and waved to show their support.
The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland was the seventh shooting at an American middle or high school this year, and the most deadly since a shooter claimed 26 lives in at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut in 2012.
Middlebury students said they are determined to do their part to prevent another tragic school shooting. MUHS sophomore Theo Wells-Spackman addressed the crowd on the bridge Wednesday.
“Our hearts are with you,” he said, addressing the families who had lost children to gun violence. “But we’re also here to demand change; something has to happen in government, gun legislation needs to pass to help our students … we need to start being vocal now.”
MUHS senior Andi Boe reiterated that point.
“Whether you’re pro or against gun control, we need to stop school shootings,” she said.
The inspiration for Wednesday’s protest came from the nationwide calls for students to speak out on gun control. Students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School themselves rallied for their peers around the country to join them in a walkout on March 14 to raise the issues of gun violence and inaction on the part of lawmakers.
“You see what’s going on all over the country, see what’s happening in Parkland, and there’s this real youth activism that I haven’t seen in a long time,” said Julian Gerson, a Middlebury College senior who helped organize the demonstration.
At Middlebury Union High School, the protest was organized through several different channels.
“A friend suggested we hold a protest here, and I decided to talk to teachers who could help,” said Boe, who was one of the demonstration’s organizers. Although the planned vigil and meeting on the bridge were conceived separately, the students at the local high school and college joined together to add strength to their message.
“It’s important that the entire community come together and students are part of that community,” Wells-Spackman said.
The movement gained the support of the MUHS Student Senate, as well as Principal William Lawson, who encouraged the students to exercise their freedom of speech in a letter to families late last week. Although MUHS teachers could not support the protest for legal reasons, they offered advice and guidance in their capacity as private citizens.
Senior Andi Boe, junior Marina Herren-Lage and sophomore Emily Pecsok, who all played organizing roles, stressed the need for a peaceful demonstration and debate. According to Boe, they hope for a peaceful discussion “rather than pointing fingers.” They also urged their fellow students to make their voices heard no matter their stance on gun laws. There was a feeling of impatience with some adults in positions of authority.
“The consequence of doing nothing is another school shooting,” said Pecsok. “Students should speak out because adults won’t.”
“I just wanted to be able to show the community we aren’t going to be quiet about it,” Herren-Lage added.
On the whole, Middlebury students have been very vocal about the changes they want to see. Those interviewed condemned the proposal to arm teachers as an increased risk, and said they hoped to see more stringent gun control legislation passed on state and national levels. Many encouraged their peers to take part in the movement.
“We need to overcome challenges in order to fight for what’s right,” said MUHS freshman Tom Nevins.
A number of the students will be participating in the postponed MUHS vigil as well as marching in the March For Our Lives in Montpelier  and across the nation on March 24. “It’s up to you (whether or not to participate), as long as you’re doing something,” Marina Herren-Lage said.
The responses of students to recent shootings reflects their determination to make a difference. The goals of many students are embodied in the words of 16-year-old Arianna Slavin:
“I hope people will come together to act, speak up, and recognize that enough is enough … the time is now to make change.”
News editor John McCright note: The authors of this story — an MUHS junior and freshman — are my daughters. When they heard that an Independent reporter was on vacation this week, they volunteered to cover this event and wrote the story with the same guidance any intern would get.
 Click on the photo to watch a video of the protest.

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