Standing in Solidarity with Parkland

Our school administrators planted the seed, and they expected us to water it. How about we, the Mighty Panthers, stand on our football field and form a heart shape, you know, to “stand in solidarity” with Parkland students? They suggested that we could film it with a drone, and maybe we could all wear purple to show that we are united. Then they could call it “student-led.” What they didn’t know is that students don’t want to make a heart. We want to effect change.

As the President of the ICADV Youth Council, I have had the pleasure of listening to many guest speakers who have helped develop my leadership style. My favorite is the idea of “calling in” and “calling out,” a method I adopted from The Peace Learning Center. I called myself in two months ago, when I heard about the horrific school shooting in Parkland, Florida. I called myself in because while I do not support the purchases of assault weapons, I haven’t been proactive in my advocacy for gun control. And, I thought, if I don’t contribute to the movement, how can I implement change?

I decided to attend a voluntary school forum at my high school to brainstorm ways to make a change. What I didn’t know is that the forum was not for brainstorming. It was an opportunity for my school’s administration to exercise their position of power and discourage students from walking out, sitting in, or making any other bold movements in the name of school safety. On top of that, we were reminded that we, as a school community, are a team. If we see any suspicious characters, we are to report them, especially because many people “suffer from mental health types of things.”

Mental health types of things? It became clear to me that our school administrators weren’t clued in to what is going on in the national conversation. Instead of supporting the student-led initiatives, they rerouted the conversations and added to the perpetuation of stigmas that suggest gun violence ends when you keep your eyes and ears open to people suffering from mental illness. Sure, we should be actively responding to behaviors that we notice are out of the ordinary, but that was what Nicolas Cruz’s friends and family did multiple times – and it still didn’t prevent the tragedy.

We, as students, should not be placed in the position of being wary of every person suffering from a mental illness, as if they might be a school shooter; instead, we should be working to make sure assault weapons do not end up in the hands of anyone outside of the military. The facts are clear: every day, 96 people die from gun violence, and this number could be reduced with stricter gun legislation, thereby preventing military grade firearms from ending up in the hands of untrained civilians.

After attending this forum, and feeling dissatisfied, I wrote an email to my school’s principal expressing my discomfort with his insensitive language (“mental health types of things”) and how I felt he deflected from what would actually allow our school to stand in solidarity with Parkland. It seemed disingenuous to label an administrator-controlled event on the football field as “standing in solidarity with Parkland,” especially when the Parkland students are encouraging students nationwide to walkout on April 20. While I am fully aware the school cannot sanction a walkout for liability reasons, simply dismissing the idea does not make the idea go away. We are not the only students talking about a walkout; it is a national conversation. My principal’s response to me was brief, stating that my email was filled with many “assumptions” and “inaccuracies,” so a simple response could not suffice. Instead, we should meet in person.

Our school administrators write off our thoughts as “assumptions” and “inaccuracies,” and no matter their intent, it makes students feel like their ideas and voices are invalidated. In a meeting with my school’s principal and two other administrators, I explained that I was no longer interested in working with the school to “stand in solidarity” with Parkland if the intentions of the school were to tag the initiative as “student-led” while the true opinions and thoughts of students were being ignored. While they apologized for the way that I, along with many other students, perceived the intentions of the forum, I still left feeling troubled by the fact that they believed I could comfortably share my views in that power dynamic (one student to three school administrators). As a senior in high school, I have certainly built my confidence over the years. However, the same cannot be said of other students, and it is a shame that anyone would be placed in that position.

I brushed the meeting off and decided that I was going to March for Our Lives in Washington DC and would no longer compromise my beliefs on this important issue. I joined a group of local high school students, called the Bloomington Students Against Assault Weapons, and in less than three weeks, we raised $12,000 for 50 students to travel to DC and march. It felt good to have our voices heard, as we were interviewed by NPR, MSNBC, The Atlantic, and appeared in the background of the Opposition with Jordan Klepper. Our local newspapers and magazines in Indiana wrote about us and how we had become national changemakers in just three short weeks.

While our experience was empowering, we realized our fight for stricter gun legislation was not over, based on what happened afterwards. On the bus ride home from the March, many of us posted photos of the experience. One freshman posted a photo of herself holding a sign at the March that sparked many heated conversations on her Instagram post. While people wrote passionately about their positions, it was all political speech, and therefore completely unacceptable. Until someone went farther. One student was told on Instagram to “get back on the plantation” because “the crops ain’t gonna get picked by themselves.” Immediately, another student on our bus blasted a screenshot of the comment on Twitter, tagging our school administration, demanding that action be taken.

The next morning, I was invited to a meeting with the district superintendent to share what we learned in DC. Instead, the students and I rerouted their conversation to discuss how the school intended to handle this recent instance of abhorrent racism, especially given the national conversations surrounding gun violence and victims of that violence, who often come from vulnerable populations. The superintendent, taken aback, did not reveal any specific procedures to handle this racist comment on social media, and told us that it was up to the discretion of our school principals. She explained that they use a progressive disciplinary system to decide the punishment of students who are a disruption to the school learning environment, starting with elementary school students who will lose their recess privileges, all the way up to expulsion.

Pause. There is no set-in-stone policy in place for students who are racially discriminating other students?

I realized then that if schools can’t take immediate, strong, public actions to protect victims of racial discrimination, then we have a long battle ahead to have schools take similar action to support the prevention of gun violence.

I never envisioned that my journey to make a larger statement in the gun control debate, ultimately for my own safety, would lead me to face such opposition from my school officials. While I do believe we are on the same page of wanting to keep children safe, I have never felt more silenced in a place where I am supposed to feel inspired and empowered. It may come as a surprise to the school administrators, but that is because they seem to be unaware of the power dynamic that lies in their favor. I feel especially thankful for the Bloomington Students Against Assault Weapons who have kept me motivated to continue the fight for stricter gun legislation even when the odds seemed to be stacked against us. Since the March for Our Lives in DC, we successfully organized our own #TownHallForOurLives in only one week, and we are currently planning the National School Walkout event on April 20th. These are the kinds of events that stand in solidarity with Parkland students. Not only are these events student-led, but they possess statements from our state representatives to take action on the issues that are important to us, the students.


Shahzadi Upadhyay

President, ICADV Youth Council