Since a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, survivors of the deadly attack — and their demand for reform — have dominated headlines and cable news channels.
That streak of demonstrations and grief has touched Clark County, with area students urging elected representatives to support gun reform and planning a mass walkout later this month.
The Women’s March Youth EMPOWER group, an effort borne of last year’s sweeping Women’s Marches following President Donald Trump’s inauguration, is urging students across the country to walk out of class for 17 minutes at 10 a.m. March 14. That’s one minute for every victim of the Parkland, Fla., shooting.
So far, four area schools have signed up to participate in the ENOUGH: National School Walkout, including Camas High School, though students from other schools have indicated they’ll also participate.
Abigail Jiang, a junior at Camas High School, is among the group of students organizing the walkout.
School shootings and safety
• Local students plan walkout, write letters: Vancouver sixth-grader sends plea for safety to Rep. Herrera Beutler
She and her friends are also collecting signatures on a letter to U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, and other elected officials urging them to support gun reform, including increasing the age requirement to buy an AR-15 — the assault rifle used in Parkland and other school shootings — from 18 to 21, lifting the ban on federally funded public health research of gun violence and instituting a ban on bump stocks, such as those used by a Las Vegas shooter last year.
Jiang hopes the walkout will encourage young people to become more politically engaged, whether that’s writing to their elected representatives or registering to vote.
“For the Parkland students in particular, it’s incredibly empowering to see them breaking the status quo and speaking out even though they were the victims,” Jiang said. “It obviously takes incredible strength to do so, and I think it’s resonating with most people in this country.”
A statement from Camas School District said the district supports the students’ right to express their views in a “peaceful manner, including their constitutional right to protest peacefully.”
“As educators, we consider it important to create the conditions for students to develop into responsible global citizens who are critical thinkers and take responsible action to build a better world,” Assistant Superintendent Charlene Williams said in the statement. “We will work with staff and students to ensure that our processes support our community’s expectation for safety and supervision.”
In neighboring Evergreen Public Schools, the teachers union has pledged its support to students who choose to walk out on March 14, and to events planned later this month and next month.
On Monday, the Evergreen Education Association’s campus representatives unanimously adopted a resolution saying the union will collaborate with students and support any planned, nonviolent demonstrations with the goal of ending gun violence in schools.
“We want to help them use their voice,” union President Rob Lutz said. “It’s what we do as educators. We help kids find their voice and take action.”
‘Think about it every day’
Younger students are joining the action as well, with students at Wy’east Middle School also planning a walkout on March 14, and at least one girl writing to Herrera Beutler, pressing her on her pro-gun voting record.
Quinn Perea, a sixth-grader at McLoughlin Middle School in the Vancouver district, wrote last month to the Southwest Washington congresswoman. In a 12-year-old girl’s loopy handwriting, she wrote about her own fear at school, and asked the congresswoman about her vote last year to roll back Obama-era regulations that would have made it more difficult for people receiving certain federal mental health benefits to buy guns. Her mother, Shari Perea, tweeted a photo of the letter last month.
“I can’t imagine running or hiding for my life or witnessing my friends, classmates and teachers being murdered,” Quinn wrote. “But unfortunately, I have to think about it every day when I go to school.”
In her letter, Quinn went on, asking why Herrera Beutler voted in favor of H.J. Res. 40. The resolution rolled back a policy that would have required the Social Security Administration to enter the names of people receiving some mental health benefits into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, the database used by the FBI to determine who can legally purchase firearms.
According to the Associated Press, the restriction could have prevented 75,000 people with certain mental illnesses from buying a firearm.
“Ms. Herrera Beutler, what are you going to do to keep me and my friends safe?” Quinn wrote.
Herrera Beutler’s office had not received Quinn’s letter when asked for comment by The Columbian, but was provided a link to Perea’s tweet. A spokeswoman for Herrera Beutler’s office called the Obama-era proposal to use the database a “blunt attempt to restrict gun ownership that would have deprived countless law-abiding and capable citizens of their constitutional rights and due process.”
“Like Quinn and people across political viewpoints, Jaime believes Nikolas Cruz — the Florida shooter — shouldn’t have been allowed to legally buy a gun and she’s ready and willing to consider any idea to stop these senseless shootings as long as they’re effective and consistent with protections provided by the Constitution,” Angeline Riesterer, Herrera Beutler’s spokeswoman, said by email.
Herrera Beutler has received an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association Political Victory Fund, as well as $10,450 in direct contributions from the organization over the course of her congressional career.
Quinn said she was inspired to write after discussing the shooting with her mom, a kindergarten teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary.
“(Children are) directly affected more than anyone else,” Perea said, adding she also thinks about what she would do to protect her students “all the time” in case of a school shooting.
In an interview with The Columbian, Quinn said she hopes hearing from a child will make an impression on Herrera Beutler.
Talking to kids about school shootings
In the aftermath of a school shooting or other traumatic event, people removed from the tragedy may experience stress or fear.
Arundhati Undurti, a psychiatrist at The Vancouver Clinic, said people can experience something called secondary trauma from watching constant coverage of horrific events like last month’s school shooting that left 17 dead at a Florida high school. Secondary trauma mimics the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including guilt, avoidance, anxiety or exhaustion, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
“Just being exposed to it in this constant, 24-hour basis can be traumatic,” Undurti said.
While every child is different, Undurti advised parents against talking to their children about school shootings until they’re about 8 and able to process the information.
“They really don’t have to hear about it,” Undurti said.
But if young children ask for information, “keep it simple,” she said, and explain what your family and your child’s school are doing to keep them safe. Try also to provide positive examples of people helping in the aftermath of a shooting, she said.
When children are into their teenage years, however, parents can start having frank conversations with them about safety, and what they might do in an active shooter situation. Ask questions such as “How do you feel about this?” or “What has your school done to keep you safe?” Undurti suggested. Talk to them about what helping victims of shootings looks like, whether that’s political activism or donating blood.
And don’t forget your own mental health in those conversations, Undurti said.
“Before you talk to your kids, give yourself some time to process your emotions,” Undurti said.
— Katie Gillespie
“It scares me,” Quinn said. “I don’t want to have to think about it. School is supposed to be a safe space.”
Adam Littman of The Columbian contributed to this report.