One Year Later

The Parker Community Reflects on Parkland’s Anniversary

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Sarah-Jayne Austin

Students process to the 17 minutes of silence on “Walkout” day.

By Celia Rattner, Francis W. Parker

“We call B.S.”

Emma González, a then-junior high school student, stands on stage in front of a cheering crowd, repeatedly directing this phrase to the National Rifle Association and President Trump. Wiping tears from her eyes, González delivers an 11 minute-long speech following the slaughter of 17 fellow high school students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. on February 14, 2018.

Armed with an AR-15 rifle, former student Nikolas Cruz charged the halls of the school, killing 17 people and injuring many others in the process. The tragedy rocked the country, sparking the heated gun debate that still swarms Capitol Hill.

Like many schools across the country, Parker participated in a rally on March 14, exactly one month following the shooting in Parkland. Many Upper School students marched around Lincoln Park, and at 10:00 a.m., took part in the 17 Minutes of Silence to commemorate the 17 lives lost during the shooting.

After the 17 minutes of silence and subsequent rally, Upper School students spent the day in student-led breakout sessions. Students who did not wish to participate in the rally watched a CNN newsfeed in the Harris Center.

“I think we made a pretty good step last year with the education piece,” Upper School Head Justin Brandon said, who worked in conjunction with students to organize the day’s events. “I think what we do…well is that, when situations come up, our teachers will find time to have the conversations. We’re a school that tries to stay as contemporary as possible, which is a big plus here, whereas other schools won’t veer off of their traditional curriculum.”

Ten days after the rally on March 24, the March for Our Lives—a nationwide set of marches calling for sensible gun control—took place. Founded by students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, the march has grown into a full-fledged organization calling for universal background checks for gun holders, federal funding to research gun violence as a public issue, and the disarmament of domestic abusers, among other goals.

Junior Natalie Daskal became involved with the Chicago branch of the March for Our Lives organization in the weeks following the Parkland shooting and has remained active ever since. “There are chapters all over the country—in cities, in towns, in schools—who do all different things,” Daskal said, “So, obviously, what we’re doing in Chicago is different from what they’re doing in rural Alabama, but both are definitely super important in their own right.”

Daskal joined the organization after searching through Facebook in the days following the shooting, only to find that no account for a March for Our Lives in Chicago existed. She took it upon herself to create the account and soon came in contact with other student leaders from around the city to plan the march in Union Square.

“Our focus was much more on the causes of gun violence in Chicago,” Daskal said. “We really were focusing on economic issues: the city council’s lack of funding for schools on the south and west side, vocational training, things like that that add up.”

Chicago is one of the deadliest cities in terms of gun violence, with roughly 555 recorded homicides in 2018, according to the Chicago Police Department. The year prior, Chicago saw 641 murders, and 781 murders in 2016, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. As of February 3, 25 people had been killed in Chicago in 2019, according to the Chicago Tribune. Much of March for Our Lives Chicago’s work is focused on decreasing these numbers.

Other Parker students, abhorred by the gun violence across America and in Chicago, have become politically engaged. On April 20, 2018, many Parker students also participated in the National School Walkout, commemorating the nineteenth anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado.

Sophomores Grace Conrad and Rebecca Gross, who were freshmen at the time, joined a committee of inner-city high school students to plan Chicago’s citywide walkout after being discontented with Parker’s rally the month before.

“I think it was definitely good and it was a good mindset,” Conrad said about Parker’s prior rally, “but that wasn’t necessarily addressing the violence in Chicago that was affecting the students of color that didn’t live in the neighborhoods that a lot of students from Parker live. The biggest thing was reaching out to other schools because the worst thing we could’ve possibly done was keep it between private schools.”

During the National School Walkout, thousands of Chicago students left their classrooms and congregated in Grant Park to hear personal anecdotes from students who had been personally affected by gun violence. Students then rallied through downtown with the help of police enforcement.

Since the National School Walkout, Conrad and Gross’s work has died down, but they hope to plan future events with the money they collected from the walkout.

Following last February’s shooting, a number of legislative measures have been taken to improve gun safety. President Donald Trump banned the use of bump-stocks, which allow semi-automatic rifles to rapidly fire multiple shots. At the beginning of 2019, HR8—a universal background check bill—was introduced to the House of Representatives. In Illinois, Governor JB Pritzker signed a licensing bill requiring gun holders to be inspected every year or two by the state government.

As for the more prolific students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, many have continued on in political pursuits. More outspoken figures of the movement, such as González, David Hogg, Jaclyn Corie, and Matt Deitsch, remain actively involved with the gun safety movement. In November, these four students were given the 2018 International Children’s Peace Prize, a prestigious award previously bestowed to other notable activists, like Malala Yousafzai.

“It’s been a year,” Daskal said. “There have been many accomplishments. Probably the most important being that we’ve involved so many youth. But, shootings haven’t slowed down, and kids are still dying, so the work can’t stop.”

This story was originally published on The Weekly on February 15, 2019.