Marching for Our Lives: Because High School Is Stressful Enough

Marching for Our Lives:
Because High School Is Stressful Enough

By Anna Burns, Manager, Communications and Public Policy

Saturday, March 24 was an extraordinarily beautiful Saturday in the District. I stayed up late the night before, crafting witty, heartfelt March for Our Lives posters with some girlfriends. I was tired, certainly, but more than anything, I was excited. It’s time for another history-making rally.

As I arrived at the march, camera dangling from my neck and phone in hand, I scanned the crowd. (And when I say crowd, I mean crowd in the truest sense of the word.) Here’s what I saw: people from every walk of life, every skin tone, and every gender exuding a sense of hope and togetherness.

On one corner there’s a small child holding up a poster larger than himself: “Am I worth more than a gun to you?”

Hundreds of thousands of people flooded my city today in response to the recent tragedy at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The senseless violence of students being killed in the midst of a school day traumatizes all of us and has had repercussions throughout our country and around the world. Those students have been utterly devastated by the loss of their classmates, teachers, and friends, but they refuse to be silent. Weeks of activism have culminated in this march. Outside of DC, 1.7 million people orchestrated 752 marches around the nation; 104 marches took place around the world.

Why am I here? I haven’t been directly affected by gun violence, fortunately. But what did one commentator say on CNN this morning? That until you’re personally touched personally by violence, you just don’t feel it? That may be true for many people. But for me, I’m here because of a gut feeling of right from wrong. No parent should have to bury their own child. No child should ever have to attend the funeral of their teachers or friends. Children shouldn’t be afraid to go to school. Period.

And then there’s my professional work. As communications and public policy manager for the School-Based Health Alliance, I dedicate hours each day to redefining health for kids and teens, especially in a place that should be a safe access point for support, health care, and compassion—their school. As a children’s health advocate, I can’t just “talk the talk”. I must walk the walk. In this case, that walk brings me down Pennsylvania Avenue.

The Parkland tragedy is part of a painful narrative of violence in our country which has claimed the lives of people young and old, students in school, and music-lovers at a concert; people going about their daily lives, people who left home in the morning fully expecting to safely return after school or work or a fun evening out. Except that again and again, chaos and killing interrupts these activities—without warning, purpose, limits, or mercy.

Gun violence claims around 96 American lives each day. Seven of these lives are young people. Guns lead to more deaths than the next 12 leading causes of teen death combined. A staggering 187,000 children in the U.S. have been directly involved in mass school shootings. And while black students make up 16.6 percent of the school-age population, they experience school shootings at twice the rate of their white peers.

Gun violence threatens the lives of children each and every day in a variety of settings—not just in schools. Millions of kids from inner cities live in constant fear of gun violence—a stressful assault on their developing minds and bodies. March for Our Lives speaker Zion Kelly, from Washington, DC, spoke to the crowd about losing his twin brother last fall when an armed robber shot and killed him. Edna Chavez, from South Central LA, described her pain as she watched someone shoot and kill her brother in their neighborhood. For her, gun violence is a normal part of her life. She learned to dodge bullets before she even learned to read.

The crowd pulsates with fervor and passion and fills me with optimism and pride. Pride for the teens who are forgoing teenage rites of passage—prom dress shopping, the anxiety of their upcoming college careers—and instead hosting town halls and meeting with elected officials to fight for their right to be safe.

They are letting adults know—with great passion, courage, savvy, and strength—that we are failing them. Their voices are raw and shrewd, unrefined and clear, strong and innocent. They reject policymakers’ “thoughts and prayers”. Words aren’t enough. They demand action. Their lived experiences are incomprehensible to many adults—myself included. My school never had active shooter drills, which are now commonplace at every school in America. Kids learn how to hide in supply closets and underneath desks to shield themselves from death.

The afternoon stretches on into evening. The sidewalks fill up with the usual rally detritus: discarded posters, stickers, and flyers. I take a look at the signs:

  • “When I said I’d rather die than go to chemistry, it was hyperbole.”
  • “We walk in their shoes because they can’t.”
  • “High school is stressful enough without more guns.”
  • “18 in November.”
  • “Mental illness is global. Mass shootings are American.”

As the crowd disperses to their own corners of the world, we ask ourselves: Where do we go from here? How do we leverage the momentum of today’s events so that Congress acts with meaningful legislation aimed at preventing gun violence in schools and communities, and not piecemeal stopgap measures meant to placate students?

Join millions of advocates demanding transformative change. Only with a legion of voices, in public debates and via subsequent ballot-box repercussions, can we make our schools safe again. Gun violence? #NeverAgain.

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