Bristol demonstration keeps focus on guns
BRISTOL — The day after 17 people were shot to death at a Parkland, Fla., school last month, and as Fair Haven police investigated a Poultney teen for planning a similar shooting at Fair Haven Union High School, Mount Abraham Union High School conducted a routine fire drill.
“That was scary,” sophomore Emma Campbell later recalled.
Senior Chloe Lyons agreed:
“Everybody was like, ‘I don’t want to go outside,’ because we knew that it’s a very common way to lure kids outside when there’s a shooting.”
Before Parkland and Fair Haven, Mount Abraham students had viewed safety drills as a kind of joke, Lyons said. “A lot of kids just took it as a time to get on our phones and hang out. But now there’s more of a sense of, ‘This could be us.’”
A month later, addressing a shivering crowd on the Bristol Town Green, Mount Abe senior Casey Ober this past Saturday echoed that sentiment:
“I say ‘I love you’ to my parents whenever I walk out the door because my school could be next, their office could be next.”
Ober and about 125 other students and residents, braving 30 mph gusts that brought the wind chill near zero, gathered around the town bandstand Saturday to protest gun violence.
Mt. Abe Student Activists (MASA), a group co-founded by Lyons and seniors Madeline Bernoudy and Molly Funk, had meant for the “Park Protest” to coincide with the National School Walkout on Wednesday, March 14, but Addison County schools were closed because of snow.
On Saturday, students arrived hours in advance of the demonstration to set up and shovel snow around the bandstand. Ignoring heavy winds that blew papers around and knocked over displays, they circulated petitions, recited poems and commemorated the 17 Parkland victims.
Kameryn Norse, a Mount Abe senior, recited a poem she’d written that painted portraits of both victim and shooter:
“Her bed was made, breakfast eaten, teeth brushed, shiny and clean. She left for school but never returned …. His bed wasn’t made, he skipped breakfast and he loaded his gun, the bullets shiny and clean. He left for school and didn’t return home.”
At a nearby table signatures accrued on a Vermont School Petition for Gun Safety, which called for universal background checks, age limits on gun purchases, firearm safety courses and stronger enforcement of anti-felon gun laws.
State Rep. Dave Sharpe of Bristol was on hand to show support. “Go students!” he shouted from the crowd.
“I support the Connecticut model,” Sharpe said between presentations, referring to that state’s gun-control laws, which were passed after a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. The laws expand bans on sales of assault-style weapons, limit magazine size, require background checks for all firearms sales and create a registry of “weapons offenders.” Gun-control supporters say the restrictions have led to a decrease in firearm deaths.
But Sharpe acknowledged that achieving the students’ goals in Vermont would be challenging. Any gun control bill viewed as too strong or too weak would encounter significant opposition from activists on either side of the issue, he said.
Among MASA’s supporters Saturday were several local teachers.
“I’m very proud of these kids,” Mount Abe social studies teacher Scott Beckwith said. “We teach a civics class at Mount Abraham called ‘Age of Legality,’ and we encourage them to actually think about their cultural capital, and what they can do to have their voices heard. This demographic for the first time in many years is standing up and actually speaking out.”
He urged the students to “stay with this. This is so vitally important.”
Bristol resident and Middlebury Union High School science teacher Carl Engvall attributed increased student engagement on this issue, in part, to the Women’s March, a women-led movement that helped sponsor the March 14 National School Walkout.
“We need a Harvey Weinstein moment on this issue,” Engvall said, referring to the former film producer whose professional downfall after dozens of women accused him of sexual misconduct has been seen by many as a watershed moment in the movement against sexual harassment.
Opportunities for students and the broader community to make their voices heard continue. In Montpelier, the House Education Committee scheduled a hearing on school safety on Wednesday, March 21, to which Vermont students were invited to testify. Some Addison County students were expected to be there.
Rep. Fred Baser, who was also on the Bristol green this past Saturday, said in a separate interview that he thought the students’ voices were being heard by the Vermont Legislature and around the country, and he commended Mount Abraham student efforts.
“I think it’s wonderful that young people, high school students and others, have chosen to get involved and say, ‘Can’t someone figure out how to do something about this?’”
Paul Forlenza, a member of the Lincoln selectboard who had met with and advised students before the protest, agreed.
“These kids are amazing, so articulate, so well-organized, so thoughtful, so caring.” Forlenza thanked their parents and teachers, who he said had helped them grow.
“I can remember when I was their age,” he added. “I was bumbling. I didn’t have a clue.”
Many in the crowd wept when students took turns on the bandstand reading brief biographies of the Parkland victims.
“I kept picturing our classmates,” Lyons said later. “People who would do the same things if they were in that position.”
She and Bernoudy said they found Peter Wang’s story one of the most moving. The 15-year-old Junior ROTC student in Parkland died while trying to save others. At his funeral, a representative from West Point presented Wang’s parents with a posthumous letter of acceptance to the United States Military Academy.
Two local 9th-graders researched and wrote the Parkland bios — Madi Shepard of Mount Abraham and Nekaiya Shine of MUHS.
“Each one I wrote broke my heart,” Shepard said. “Learning about the victims put into perspective for me that they were more than just ‘17 dead.’ They were people with faces and families and lives and they are dead because of a 19-year-old with access to an AR-15.”
To close Saturday’s event, cast members from the Mount Abe spring musical sang “Bring on Tomorrow,” a number from their forthcoming production of “Fame.”
“I could not have imagined a more successful version of the event,” Lyons said. “It was everything the MASA members hoped for, and made all the long hours completely worth it. This was an amazing start for our community. The conversation does not end here.”
OTHER PROTESTS HELD, MORE PLANNED
Since students from Middlebury Union High School and Middlebury College held a March 14 demonstration on the Cross Street Bridge calling for action to address gun violence in schools, more gatherings have been held and at least one more is planned for this coming Saturday.
Many local demonstrations as part of the National School Walkout on March 14 were postponed because of the school snow day. One was at Middlebury Union Middle School, where about 160 students and staff walked out and recognized the 17 students and staff killed in the Parkland, Fla., school shooting in February. Mount Abraham Union High School students and community members held a demonstration on the Bristol Town Green on Saturday (see story on Page 1A).
Mount Abraham Principal Jessica Barewicz early this week looked forward to debriefing with organizers of that event, she said. She also commented on the rescheduled in-school memorial, which took place Monday, March 19. At the memorial in the school auditorium students observed 17 minutes of silence — one for each Parkland shooting victim.
“It was beautiful,” Barewicz said.
An estimated 50-75 MUHS students also walked out on Monday morning for an observance of silence and reading of names of the Parkland victims.
On this coming Saturday, March 24, community members from Addison County will gather on the town green in Middlebury for a “sibling march” as part of the March for Our Lives movement. The march is one of over 800 happening around the country planned by students, teachers and concerned community members in towns and cities big and small, in all 50 states.
The Middlebury program is scheduled for noon-2 p.m.
The national day of action will focus on calling for lawmakers to make students’ lives and safety a priority, and to pass common-sense gun safety legislation.
More information on the Sibling Marches is online at MarchforOurLives.com/events.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].
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