Pensacola, Florida
Sunday June 16th 2019


The Kids are Right

By Jennie McKeon

On Wednesday, March 14, thousands of high school students walked out of their schools at 10 a.m. local time in a peaceful protest to end gun violence.

Since the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that killed 17, teenagers have dominated the conversation about gun control.

The core group of teens from Marjory Stoneman have empowered teens across the country to stand up for gun control reform with the message #NeverAgain.

But the movement is not isolated to Parkland. Students from more than 3,000 schools in the country took a stand on March 14, now known as National Walkout Day. On Saturday, they’ll take their message to the streets with the March for Our Lives Rally.

“As a high school student, I’m concerned for my own safety,” said 16-year-old Isabella Ludergnani. “School shootings are becoming a trend in this country and in doing so are endangering the lives of many young people. The teen advocate survivors have inspired people, including myself, to stand up and say enough is enough.”

It may be time for adults to start listening.

‘We call BS’
Ludergnani is a junior at Gulf Breeze High School. She grew up listening to news reports about mass shootings. The shooting at Marjory Stoneman felt different, she said.

“Children who are just trying to get an education should not have to be confronted by this type of violence,” she added. “It’s time our elected officials review and reform our gun laws in this country.”

Taylor Smith, a 19-year-old student at Pensacola State College, remembers being a freshman at Milton High School when the school went on lockdown after reports that a man with a gun was on the campus. The gun turned out to be fake but the fear was real, she said.

“The lockdown lasted an hour but it felt like a lifetime,” she said. “I, of course, texted my mom. I’ll never forget that day. The teacher locking the door, closing the blinds and turning off the lights. All of us students huddled together under the lab tables. The threat of gun violence is very real, and we shouldn’t have to carry that worry with us. That experience has taught me to always look for a quick exit when I’m on campus.”

Smith said she started to become an advocate for common sense gun legislation a few years ago. What motivates her is her two younger sisters, who are 16 and 7.

“I’m concerned for their safety, and do everything in my power—as an activist and a voter—to protect them from horrific tragedies like Parkland and Sandy Hook,” she said.

Students under the age of 18 don’t have voting power, but there’s power in numbers and activism. The generation that perfected the selfie took their message to social media and it spread like wildfire.

Three days after the shooting, Emma Gonzelez, a senior at Marjory Stoneman became an instant celebrity activist after delivering a powerful speech in which she called out President Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association.

“Companies are trying to make caricatures of the teenagers these days, saying that all we are self-involved and trend-obsessed and they hush us into submission when our message doesn’t reach the ears of the nation, we are prepared to call BS,” Gonzelez cried.

Smith said she is inspired particularly by Gonzalez and in general by other student activists. And she points out that this isn’t the first national conversation started by young people.

“Some of our most successful social justice movements were sparked by the actions of the young,” she explained. “Movements led by young folks have shaped the society we live in today. Young people played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement. History shows us that children, teenagers and young adults of the 1960s were incredibly active during the movement’s most notable meetings, marches and protests.”

While some political pundits have been quick to scoff at teenage advocates, Ludergnani said she believes this generation should be taken seriously.

“I think these survivors are exactly who we need to be listening to because they have first-hand experience of what it means to go through something like this,” she said.

“Their stories and insight are important for us to understand how to make schools safer in the future. Teenagers aren’t as immature and naïve as some people would like to make them out to be. We have a lot of access to information that is relevant to issues we face in today’s society.”

“I went to a 14-year-old’s funeral”
Elyssa Goldman remembers sitting in Chick-Fil-A on Valentine’s Day when she got a text that made her heart stop.

“Hey, I don’t know if you had Alyssa, but she was shot in that shooting,” it read.

Alyssa Alhadeff was one of the 17 victims of the Parkland shooting. She was just 14.

Goldman was Alhadeff’s camp counselor. She wasn’t extremely close to Alhadeff, but she remembers the 14-year-old as a likeable young girl with friends in every unit at the camp.

“She wasn’t a girl I had to yell at to get ready,” said the 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Florida. “She was just one of those good kids. I woke her up from a nap when she overslept during cleaning time. I gave her a huge hug when she was bawling her eyes out on the last day of camp, not knowing it was the last time I’d ever see her.”

“I went to a 14-year-old’s funeral.”

When UF held a vigil for the victims at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Goldman said her sadness turned to anger.

“Anger toward our government, who did nothing after the Columbine shooting, who did nothing after Sandy Hook, who did nothing after Pulse, who did nothing after Las Vegas, and now would do nothing after Parkland,” she said. “This was the first time a shooting had been personal for me and I’m embarrassed to say I did nothing before it was personal. But now I realize that we shouldn’t have to wait for someone in the government’s kid to be shot for there to be change.”

Florida lawmakers did do something in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting. On March 9, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill that raises the age limit to buy guns from 18 to 21 and extends the waiting period to buy weapons to three days. It also created the “guardian” program which allows teachers and school staff in participating districts to carry handguns after completing law enforcement training. The National Rifle Association responded by filing a lawsuit against the State of Florida.

“It’s progress,” said Goldman.

“Hopefully, this is the beginning of a lot of needed legislation,” she said. “The age requirement and waiting period are definitely a good step forward. The (arming teachers) part is ridiculous. If they want to spend money to train and arm teachers, they should put that money into hiring more properly skilled and trained security guards. Teachers should not have a handgun. Their jobs are to teach.”

‘Change is the tide’
This Saturday, March 24, in Pensacola and beyond, people of all ages will participate in more than 700 March for Our Lives events throughout the U.S.

Gay Valimont is the Florida Chapter Leader of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. The non-partisan organization started in 2012 after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

As an advocate and as a mom, Valimont said she is proud of the students who have become gun control advocates.

“Change is the tide,” said the Gulf Breeze mom. “It’s fantastic. I don’t think these kids are going to let anyone forget. It’s made me feel hopeful; we’re already feeling a change.”

Locally, Valimont said she’s surprised to see action in the Northwest Florida area also known as “the reddest part of the state.” There are events from Pensacola to Fort Walton Beach.

“It’s not a black and white issue,” Valimont said. “It’s not a Republican versus Democrat issue. We respect the Second Amendment; we want you to pass a background check. Be well-informed and when you decide who you’re voting for, make sure representatives’ platforms align with how you feel about gun violence.”

March for Our Lives has become a stepping-stone for young advocates to become more politically engaged. Since becoming involved with the rally, Ludergnani has since become secretary of Young Democrats of Santa Rosa County.

“Seeing how the survivors of the school shooting have turned their pain and frustration into activism has helped me realize teenagers can get involved in political matters,” Ludergnani said. “We can make a difference. The activism has already been spurring change across the nation and will continue to have a lasting effect.”

Smith credits Bernie Sanders for igniting a “fiery passion” for politics in her. At 19 she already has an impressive resume. She founded the Young Democrats of Santa Rosa County where she serves as president and last year she joined the Santa Rosa Democratic Executive Committee as a precinct chairwoman. She’s also the co-director of Unite Women and is a former intern with ACLU.

“You don’t have to be of voting age to make an impact,” Smith said. “About 7,000 students have died from gun violence since Sandy Hook in 2012. We are on the frontlines of crisis, so we will be at the forefront of change.’

Goldman said the 2016 election was her introduction to politics. Now, she’s majoring in political science. She jokes that she’s the one more likely to yell at her friends to vote.

On Saturday, she’ll meet up with her fellow camp counselors in Washington D.C. to attend the March for Our Lives rally with 14-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff on her mind. It’s no longer just politics, it’s personal.

“These are human beings whose lives are being taken away,” she said. “It’s not a political debate. This is a matter of life and death. This is a matter of human need.”

WHEN: 10 a.m. Saturday, March 24
WHERE: N. Palafox (near Palafox Market)

WHEN: 10 a.m. Saturday, March 24
WHERE: Gulf Breeze High School Parking Lot, 675 Gulf Breeze Pkwy.

WHEN: 10 a.m. Saturday, March 24
WHERE: 8543 Navarre Pkwy.