The girl, a seventh grader, tiny in an oversized red T-shirt, her hair pulled back into a bun, stood before a group of adults she did not know, pulled out her cell phone and said, “So, this is my will.”
“[My best friend] Blake,” she read with her voice shaking, “gets $200, and my best wish is that she gets to become a professional soccer player.”
The girl, whose name was Ellie, said her mom had discovered her will in the notes of her cell phone after her middle school’s last school lockdown. She recalled telling her mom: I wrote it in case I am ever killed in a school shooting.
The crowd around her, about 50 people, most of them adults, listened in emotional silence. A woman clenched her chest and tears rolled down her face. Among those listening was a panel of state lawmakers and Denver Public Schools’ board members and administrators. All gathered in the wake of this month’s STEM school shooting and the subsequent student anger when a memorial took on political overtones. They said they wanted to hear directly from students about how gun violence affects them and how they want state lawmakers and DPS administrators to respond.
“Here in Colorado, in the state where Columbine happened, we live in a constant state of fear,” said moderator Erica Meltzer, Colorado bureau chief at Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news site focusing on education. The event was organized and sponsored by Denver Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation (INC), a volunteer nonprofit coalition of Denver’s neighborhoods.
“Going to school afraid something bad is going to happen shouldn’t be a worry to students,” Gabby Rhodes, a DPS high school senior, told the audience. “The fact that one person is able to get a gun as easily as I am able to say ‘hello’ should be a concern.”
The STEM shooting, in which two students shot and killed one student and wounded eight others, happened on May 7th. Just a little more than two weeks earlier, schools throughout the state were locked down after law enforcement said a Florida teen infatuated with the Columbine High School mass shooting had come to Colorado and purchased a gun. The 18-year-old woman was able to buy a shotgun when she arrived because the state has no waiting periods for long guns. (Florida imposes a three-day waiting period.) She killed herself near a campground west of Denver.
“Please, I’m begging you, make a change,” Rhodes said. “I shouldn’t have to worry about whether I will see my sister when I get home. Please help us live to get older.”
Five students, all from DPS, addressed the panel. STEM students were also invited, but declined, organizers said. The students asked the panel of lawmakers and district officials for faster and clearer communication about gun violence incidents happening on their campuses, a special student advisory board for legislators at the state Capitol and more mental health awareness and services in schools and in the Denver community, among other things.
The danger does not always come from outside the school or from fellow students, Charlie Jones, a 2018 DPS graduate who is African American, told the panel. “It was on my way home from school that I was worried about being shot… Gun violence is an everyday reality for my community.”
Jones criticized his school’s response to the threat of gun violence with greater reliance on school resource officers—uniformed police who are assigned to schools. That response contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline, he said.
“We don’t need more officers in black and brown schools when it’s not black and brown schools that are being shot, it’s suburban schools,” Jones said. “These students deal with police on a day-to-day basis, and they don’t need to come to school to deal with more officers.”
Amy Duclos, an organizer of the event and the education chair for INC, said that the town hall came together after a conversation with her teenage son and his friend about the lockdowns happening in their schools during the STEM school shooting. She said she was taken aback by her sons’ anger and assertion that their schools weren’t listening to them or doing anything to protect them.
“We’re making decisions for these kids, but they don’t have a seat at the table,” Duclos said
Hazel Gibson, the co-organizer for the event and a former Democratic state senate candidate, said that it was in talking to Duclos’ son that she realized the students being affected by school shootings were missing from the conversation. “I thought maybe they have the answers that we’re looking for.”
Lawmakers promised a list of action items, including working to advocate for better mental health support in schools, creating safer school campuses without criminalizing black and Latino students, and ensuring students are a part of the conversation about gun policy.
Maggie, a DPS junior, asked the panel of Denver representatives and leaders, “Are you willing to go to lengths for this issue?” One by one, each answered “yes.”
Students “are living this fear everyday,” Duclos said after the gathering. Their voices, she added, must be front and center moving forward.