U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy urged students to remain involved, passionate, and vote, and they responded to questions from the audience of 800 high school students at a forum at Conard High School in West Hartford Monday morning.
By Ronni Newton
Connecticut’s two senators joined education leaders, advocates, and students Monday morning at Conard High School in West Hartford for a 90-minute forum on gun violence and school safety, urging students to continue to speak up and get involved because they have the power to effect change.
“These kids are engaged at a new level. They’re already making a big difference,” U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) told We-Ha.com after the forum. Students at Conard and Hall high schools, as well as the town’s three middle schools, participated in the National School Walkout last week, and Murphy said he hopes they will stick with their activism even if effecting change doesn’t come immediately.
In addition to Murphy and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), forum panelists included West Hartford Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore, Conard Student Council President Victoria Pham, Hall student walkout leader Megan-Striff Cave, Department of Pupil Services Supervisor Stacy Kellogg-Shove, Morley Elementary School first grade teacher Jennifer LaForte, Project Longevity Statewide Coordinator Brent Peterkin, and Connecticut Against Gun Violence Executive Director Jeremy Stein.
The audience of 800 included juniors and seniors from Conard High School as well as student leaders from Hall High School. Conard Principal Julio Duarte introduced and closed the forum, and West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor also addressed the crowd.
“Just having the senators here listening to our voices, they’re saying ‘We want to hear you,'” Hall student Megan Striff-Cave, who was part of the panel, said after the forum.
“Eighteenth century laws can’t regulate 21st century weapons,” said Striff-Cave, a gun control advocate who helped organize Hall’s walkout last week and will travel to Washington, DC, next weekend to participate in the March for Our Lives protest.
When she addressed the audience during the forum, Striff-Cave said that students are done “accepting that this is just the way things are … enough is enough. We want ways to take action and make meaningful change so this will not happen again.”
“These young people were absolutely awesome. They don’t mess around with double-talk,” Blumenthal said after the forum. “If they’re voting with their feet, soon they’ll be voting with their ballots. That’s power,” he said.
“I’m so impressed by the caring, not just the passion,” Blumenthal said.
Addressing the audience in his introductory remarks at the forum, Blumenthal told students, “We are closer now than ever before to meaningful reform because of you.” This is a social movement, being driven by young people, and that’s a great tradition in America.
“My ask of you is not only that you walk out and not only that you demonstrate … but walk into polling places and urge others to walk into polling places … That’s the power you can bring to bear on our democracy,” Blumenthal said. As for arming teachers, Blumenthal referred to that as “toxic lunacy.”
Murphy said that while gun control is a political issue inside Washington, outside of Washington most people believe in universal background checks for gun owners, and the dialogue isn’t and shouldn’t be just about school shootings. The specter of fear of being shot, that many face in their own neighborhoods, is a public health epidemic, he said.
“We need to talk about school safety but we also need to talk about neighborhood safety,” Murphy said.
Speaking as someone who has usually been the youngest in the room fighting for an issue, he urged students to raise their voices. “I hope you understand the power you have.”
Pham said that students have a voice and are old enough to hold an opinion. “We are the voices of the future and there is no better time to speak up than now,” she said. She said students should reach out if they see someone who appears to be struggling, because that can make a difference.
“How do we teach you about Martin Luther King Jr. your whole lives and then the moment when you want to engage, we tell you ‘No you can’t,'” said Moore. “That’s ludicrous.” He said he has gotten plenty of “hate mail” about his sharing information about safety measures in West Hartford’s schools and his decision to allow students to walk out last week, and probably would get more alleging he was allowing “brainwashing” by permitting two Democratic senators to address the students.
But Moore said students make up their own minds. “The way for you to really engage in first amendment isn’t about yelling and shouting, it’s about listening,” Moore said, including to those who disagree with you. Juniors and seniors in the room will soon be able to vote, Moore said, and he hopes they will listen, understand, and do just that.
Stein asked the audience to raise their hands if they think reducing gun violence in Connecticut is a good thing, and virtually everyone’s hands went up.
He urged students to state their opinions, to attend public hearings banning ghost guns and bump stock, and if they can’t testify in person to write letters. “We need to ban these things in our state and we need to ban these things federally,” Stein said.
Stein asked students to stand if they agreed that gun violence needs to be ended locally and nationally, and nearly everyone in the room did. “You need to stand up for your rights now, tomorrow, and in the future,” he said.
Peterkin said he was shot at while a teen, and urged a united voice to speak up about gun violence in schools as well as in neighborhoods. “We have to consider policies and initiatives that focus on prevention and intervention,” he said.
The “vigor, energy, and aggressiveness, and the boldness of our youth,” can make a difference, Peterkin said.
A student named Rebecca asked the senators why they came to West Hartford, which is not really impacted by gun violence, as opposed to Hartford or Bridgeport or New Haven.
“No community, none, is immune from gun violence,” said Blumenthal, who said that he and Murphy held a roundtable discussion on Sunday in Bridgeport. “Anybody who thinks it can’t happen here is in denial.”
Not everyone in the audience shared the same viewpoint as the senators and other panelists.
“You said arming teachers is ludicrous and that adding more guns nets more gun violence,” said student John Dalton, but asked how that can be when in military barracks are full of guns and there is little violence.
“We have plenty of data on places, and communities and states that have more guns,” Murphy responded. “And communities, institutions, and places that have more weapons have higher rates of gun crime, not lower rates of gun crime.” In addition, far more die from accidental gunfire than school shootings, he added.
Conard student Mags Grabber asked about the effectiveness of reaching out and friending students who seem troubled.
Murphy praised the work being done to foster inclusiveness, and said that many of the school shooters aren’t necessarily mentally ill, but troubled.
“There is a growing movement in this country for social and emotional learning,” added Blumenthal.
“Why is this time different?” asked student Noah Case.
“Because of you. Because of the walkout,” said Blumenthal. “Something has changed and something in this country has changed.” He said he doesn’t know if it’s a “tipping point or watershed,” but that it’s important to hold leaders accountable by working through the voting process. “What’s different is the awakening of America.”
Student Therese Jones asked what is so different about America that we have so much gun violence.
The reason that the gun violence rate in America is 20 times higher than in other countries is not because we have more mentally ill people, less law enforcement, or unsafe schools, Murphy said. “The answer is that this country has the loosest gun laws.”
While Murphy acknowledged that firearms are a part of our Constitution, he said there is a middle ground that can make the country much safer, and changing certain laws “can have a dramatic effect.”
Cantor said before the forum that 150,000 American students have experienced school shootings since Columbine in 1999, two-and-a-half times the population of West Hartford. “It’s so tragic, so maddening … We can’t let this be our new normal. We can’t.”
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