Kalli Johnson, a 17-year-old assistant editor at Braden River High School’s newspaper, was busy last month organizing a sign-making party in preparation for the March 24 March for Our Lives gun-control demonstration on the downtown Sarasota bayfront. She was inspired to participate, she told me, after listening to Emma Gonzalez, a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior, who gave a raw, anguished speech in Fort Lauderdale just days after a 19-year-old former student killed 17 people.
For Johnson, this shooting in Parkland, Florida, hit home in a way that other school massacres had not. “A lot of people in school knew kids who had died,” she says. “Police were on our campus, teachers were whispering. There was a man with a bulletproof vest standing in our cafeteria as we ate lunch with our friends.” She pauses: “I want adults to know that when your journalism teacher has to tell you about running, hiding or fighting, something has to change.”
Kalli isn’t the only teen inspired to act. March for Our Lives, which was organized by Gonzalez and her Parkland classmates, has galvanized a nation of young people. With no filters and nothing at stake but the risk of being ignored, the Parkland students let politicians—and all adults—know that they saw through the glad-handing, pivoting and money that dominate so much of the gun conversation. They made it clear that we have let them down in our refusal to enact common-sense gun control.
Why was Parkland the catalyst? More than 150,000 students in at least 170 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on campus since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, according to the Washington Post. But this time, the right factors fell in line. Parkland’s articulate students, who are products of well-off families and a good school, are avid consumers of information and adept at social media. And they have come of age in a highly politicized climate. When the tragedy struck in the middle of Florida’s legislative session, they had an ability to channel their outrage, distrust and fear on social media, an outlet that didn’t exist in the days of Columbine or Sandy Hook.
Steve Martinez is a Sarasota student who is channeling his anger and sadness. The 18-year-old student body president of Booker High School says he was moved to tears after hearing about the shooting and immediately registered to vote. Then he and his fellow students petitioned administration for a school with fewer entrances on campus and more security, and they organized an assembly on March 14 as a day to remember the victims. He’s also urging other students to register to vote.
Madison Markham, a 17-year-old junior at State College of Florida Collegiate School, says she was too young when Sandy Hook and the 2016 Pulse nightclub shootings happened. This time, she knew students who had gone to Marjory Stoneman Douglas. She immediately Googled who her state and national elected representatives are and began calling and writing. “I think they’re surprised when they realize how old I am,” she says. Her message is simple and sincere. “I know it may not appeal to you to vote [to ban assault-style weapons],” she tells them, “but I hope you’ll consider my thoughts and feelings as much as you do your own.” Her school held an assembly and collected anonymously written cards to address students’ concerns and then read them aloud. “It was sad,” she told me. “The questions were about ‘Am I safe?’ Even our teachers, the people we look up to, don’t know how to protect us. I don’t want to feel powerless.”
It might be tempting to dismiss these kids, but they’ve already changed the political zeitgeist. Major corporations are changing their inventories, sales policies, discounts and insurance policies for National Rifle Association members. As I write this, Gov. Rick Scott just did the unthinkable. He signed legislation tightening gun restrictions, the first significant change to gun control in Florida—ground zero for testing how far the NRA can push for gun rights—in 20 years.
These restrictions are baby steps, but gun reform is a long game and teens have a long life ahead of them. I’ve read criticisms that dismiss high schoolers as too young, too impetuous, too easily manipulated. But the teens I spoke to are reaching out to adults for support. “It’s important that adults help us,” says Madison.
These students are brave, aware and remarkable. And they are getting involved. “It’s my intention to make my voice heard,” says Emily White, a homeschooled 16-year-old. “We’re watching, and we’re seeing that adults are not doing a good job.” We’d better pay attention. Many of these informed teens will be able to vote in the next election.