This week, we share a dialogue between John Rogers and students from Alhambra High School. Following the shooting in Parkland, Florida and the national walkout on March 14th, students from Jose Sanchez’ U.S. Government class began researching issues surrounding gun violence in schools. In time, the students felt compelled to take action, as Bliss Joan Tafolla-Aguirre explains: “As students, we are taught to advocate for ourselves in school and in our lives. If we want progress and sincere change, then we have to be the ones to initiate it.” Drawing on their study of the Declaration of Independence, the students decided to collectively state their concerns about gun violence, and suggestions for making schools safer, in the form of a public resolution. After sharing this model legislation with the school board and city council, their efforts soon caught the attention of local and national news media. Following stories in CNN and The Hill, Congresswoman Judy Chu flew out to meet with Mr. Sanchez’ students on May 25. Although they graduated on June 1st, many of Mr. Sanchez’ students plan to collaboratively work throughout the summer, in hopes of spreading word of their resolution to students, community members, and politicians across the nation.
John Rogers: What led you, as a class, to start talking about issues of gun violence?
Alejandro: The walkout the Parkland kids orchestrated really started us off. It opened our eyes to see how widespread the problem is, and talk about how frequently this happens and what changes are needed for this to be non-existent.
Did students at Alhambra High School also walk out on March 14th, or were you just watching the news?
Alejandro: We walked out.
By a show of hands, can you tell me how many students in this class walked out? [EVERYONE RAISES HANDS] I’m hoping some of you might be willing to share what the experience of walking out was like. Did you feel like the walkout changed anything, or did it make you think differently about any issues?
Frank: Here, it wasn’t like we were necessarily walking out of our school—it was more like us coming together at the school. It was our remembrance of all who lost their lives in the shootings. And it was very emotional… It meant something to me, at least.
Bliss: I agree that it meant a lot to the students. When I was walking out, I realized just how other students are also thinking and feeling the same as we do about this issue, and there are a lot of students who are personally affected by this. We haven’t had a shooting here, thankfully, but that doesn’t mean we’re not affected by the issue itself. In the end, we know that a shooting can occur any day or any time, and that’s something we have to mentally prepare ourselves for.
But to see how many people were participating in the walkout—the speeches and performances that the school, the students, and the clubs planned—it was awesome. I just thought that was something wonderful—to see how students can set their mind to something, plan it out and see it happen before their eyes.
Before March 14th, did any of you feel like gun violence, either in the community or in the school, was an issue that mattered to you? Or, did you realize it was an issue you cared about—or maybe cared more about than you previously had—by what happened on March 14th?
Alejandro: Before March 14th, I went out of my way to sign petitions, because I turned 18 in January. I’ll do whatever I can, like sign a petition to ban bump stocks, for example. I signed a petition for that. And it did matter.
Why did it matter to you?
Alejandro: Because it’s not right. The people that do these crimes, their moral compass is all off. It shouldn’t be like this.
Stephanie: Before the walkout, what really impacted me was the shooting that happened at an elementary school. I think what really makes us open our eyes is that very young children are losing their lives way too early. When you hear about children, that’s when it starts to hit you that our generation and our future can be affected.
And now, even though we’ve graduated high school, some of us are going to college, but it can still happen there. It puts into perspective how big this actually is. So, ever since what happened at Sandy Hook, I’ve been thinking about what people’s families must be going through. They lost their children so young, and it was a shock. And now, it’s become not as shocking, because it’s occurring in so many places. And I think that’s something that just has to be stopped.
So, like many other schools and classrooms across the country, March 14th galvanized your attention to the issue of gun violence. Many students all across the country were participating in the march, but very few students then wrote resolutions that were taken up by local officials, and then by members of Congress. What led this group of students to take some action?
Rainier: Our teacher, Mr. Sanchez, gave us the idea at first. And we started doing small things, such as posting our ideas about gun violence on the board. We did some more small things like that, some worksheets regarding guns, so we could be more informed. Then he brought up the idea of the resolution and we were on board with it.
In most places, if you brought together 25 or 30 people, you will find all different sorts of ideas about the problem of gun violence, and what to do about it. How did you arrive at a common set of ideas?
Melanie: At first, I think we all felt strongly about what was happening and how hurt we were. Before we even started on the resolution, we had a Socratic seminar to talk about gun violence in schools and gun control. And everyone had different opinions, and we saw some of that, and we often disagreed with each other. But we also learned from one another; we listened to others’ opinions, so we could see from the other side what people think. We all had different opinions on certain things, but we all felt strongly about gun control and changing what’s happening in our country. That’s our common ground.
Bliss: When we were drafting the resolution, we were working in groups. For many days, we would look over certain clauses; then, it would go to each group to check whether or not they wanted to change something about the clause or were willing to approve it. So, we looked at every part of the resolution itself, and then, after finalizing it, we approved it as a class.
Going through that process of having every person in the group approve it showed that we’re willing to compromise, and willing to change and edit it. Like most documents, it’s very fluid and open to be changed. I think as a class we’re willing to edit it, even as we go further, presenting it to people, we understand that a lot of people will have different opinions on the other side. And we can take that into consideration, even though we have a final version of it. That doesn’t mean we’re not willing to change it still.
Can anyone remember a time when one of your ideas in the resolution was taken out because someone disagreed? How did that work?
Alejandro: It had to do with the idea that teachers should not carry guns in the classroom. Some of us thought it would be easier to address guns in general, rather than only in the classroom. So, that was something that somebody stated we should change, and it was.
So ultimately, everybody in this class agreed on every word that was in the resolution. How is this class able to achieve this, but the U.S. Congress can’t? What do you think happened here that allowed for this unanimous consensus to emerge, when we can’t get 51% of legislative bodies oftentimes to agree to something?
Vidal: I think it’s simple. There’s no money behind it.
Can you say more about that? That’s an interesting point.
Vidal: No one came to me and told me to not make the resolution, or not work to make change. I’m sure everyone wants to save the kids—nobody wants a kid to die. But they’re going to protect the guns, and it’s just… I feel like it’s just all about money.
Stephanie: I think we came together because we shared a similar idea. In Congress, there’s always the potential that individual gains might prevent you from coming to a compromise. Here as a class, we all agree that we just want a positive outcome from it—so there’s not necessarily one individual interest or aspect. We are open to whatever we can do to make a change.
JR: As you’re talking about listening to each other and coming to consensus, and the sense of respect you have for one another and being tolerant of each other’s differences, I am struck by how different that is from most of the stories I’ve heard from teachers across the country. Last fall, I published a report based on a survey of high school teachers all across the country, which asked how the political climate at their schools had changed in the months after President Trump was elected. And many teachers across the country talked about growing incivility in their schools. We heard repeatedly that students were more likely to be angry towards one another, and sometimes through racial animosity, with epithets and other ways of demonstrating disrespect. So, I’m wondering what your thoughts are about what happens at this school, or in this particular class, that allows for students to look at each other and respect what others have to say and how others think.
Alejandro: I think generally it starts with all of us having the same idea: we don’t want anything like this to happen here.
Eduardo: I think we all have the same fear. We don’t want a school shooting happening here, and I think we just separate our differences and come together to find common ground. We all have the same goal—to reduce gun violence. And not only at schools, but throughout the country.
Stephanie: I think this topic goes beyond race and ethnicity. It’s something that worries everyone equally. It could be anyone, so we don’t want to put up any barriers. The best way to make progress is to be open to each other’s ideas, and to find something we can all agree on.
Allow me to pick up on something Eduardo said, which I’ve heard from others too—that this is an issue because you’re students, and you don’t want a similar tragedy to happen at your school. Today, you are three days away from graduation. When you leave this school, you are also leaving your status as Alhambra High students. Does that mean you won’t carry this same concern with you any longer? Or, if you are taking this concern with you, what’s the source of it, since you’ll no longer be a student at a high school?
Briana: After all that I’ve learned about gun control issues, it’s going to be nearly impossible for me to ignore the facts—meaning, that innocent people are dying almost every day due to gun violence. And I know I have the power to change that—or at least try and change that. So I’m going to try and make a change. I don’t want to see people that I know, or love, or even acquaintances get hurt. I don’t wish this upon anybody. And the power is with the youth. We have the power.
Briana, why is the power with the youth?
Briana: Because we are the next leaders of America. Our voices are going to be heard.
Bliss: I think one reason the concerns will carry on after we leave high school is because, as other people have touched upon, shootings also occur at colleges. It’s a different setting, sure, but does that mean that the presence of gun violence will not be there? And beyond that, our resolution is not completely focused only on schools—it’s about gun violence in general.
Eduardo: I think we have power not only through our voices, but through voting. A lot of us are aware now that we need to go out and vote. I think the voter turnout is going to be much higher than normal this fall. Going to college means that we’ll be better informed and more knowledgeable about these topics, but the issue is still going to be there. Like they’ve said, it happens in colleges too.
Earlier, Eduardo was saying that young people are paying more attention to elections and the importance of voting now. I’m curious if, because of this project, you found yourselves following the news more closely than before.
Stephanie: This last class assignment wasn’t just a topic that’s going to stay in this classroom, because we’re going to see it outside of here. This kind of awareness makes us want to do something about it, because it’s going to continue.
Eduardo: It’s also not only about us doing our own thing. If we’re making new alliances, it brings awareness and inspires others to do the same. There always has to be leaders, and I see our class as leaders. I think that if we keep doing this work, we can gain the support of more people and inspire more people.
Alejandro: I find myself paying more attention to the news because I want to see what progress is being made. Specifically in this area, it’s kind of demoralizing to see the topic of gun violence just fade off. Trump just covers up the topic of guns and takes away attention with his own stuff. It demoralizes me, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
I’m curious what different sorts of responses you’ve gotten from adults. I gather from hearing your Socratic seminar discussion that some adults have responded very favorably to your ideas and engaged with you respectfully. Other adults have either pushed back or not paid attention. Can you give me some examples of the different types of interactions with adults, and how they have played out?
Alejandro: There is a comment online that called us “Pre-Pubescent Fascists.” I responded and said that they’re narrow-minded. A lot of the push back we’ve gotten is from narrow-minded people.
Eduardo: I think people don’t respect our opinion. They don’t really understand our background, or the whole background of this situation. They just completely disagree without doing their research on us, or even reading the resolution.
Stephanie: There’s definitely been many narrow-minded people, but there are others who are open minded and have really have supported us. Some have helped us improve our resolution, and suggested ways to get farther with it. They’ve been really supportive, and it’s like they’re waiting for us to do something. I feel like people are just waiting for someone to start it off, so then they can get on board, because that’s really the hardest part.
Your teacher said that Congresswoman Judy Chu took a 1am flight to meet with you last Friday. Why do you think she did that?
Alejandro: She just feels really passionate about the topic. She wants to adopt our resolution and take it as far as it can go.
Eduardo: I think she saw that we all have the same passion as she does, and she can work with us—gaining ideas and helping to get something going.
Stephanie: She mentioned that groups of politicians have tried to do something about it and couldn’t, but we were able to get a lot of attention. She knows that having students as back-up can really make the difference.
It’s been just about a hundred days since the Parkland shooting, and ten or eleven days since the shooting in Santa Fe. There was yet another shooting last Thursday or Friday in a middle school, which a teacher was able to stop. Given all of that, what keeps you hopeful at this moment? What makes you hopeful about the future?
Eduardo: Something that keeps me hopeful is everyone else’s courage. A lot of these students know they’re going to get a lot of backlash, but yet they’ve been very courageous about it. I read up on the history of when people were allowed to smoke in schools and restaurants, and the persistence of young people were pivotal in making these changes and changing what the tobacco companies do. Now, there are anti-smoking everywhere. Kids are very powerful, I think. Martin Luther King was just one man, but he was courageous enough to get people on-board. Obviously, people are going to be scared—but how you handle it matters. If we hit rock bottom, we’ll just get up again. We have to try.
Alejandro: What leaves me hopeful is that I don’t like what I’m seeing, and odds are, there are other kids in this country who have the same thoughts. And there is power in bigger numbers. So that’s what leaves me hopeful.
Carolina: What’s keeping me hopeful is that we’re getting support from all of these people, which will push us forward. And like Alejandro said, there’s other people that feel the same as us. That helps build our courage to keep on going with this and make a change.
Vidal: Something that keeps me hopeful is this class. Especially Mr. Sanchez, because he has always encouraged us with the resolution. And I think we just keep each other hopeful, you know? Even when some of us aren’t really into it, we’ll come in here and see how others really want to make a change. It enlightens some of us, and inspires me to want make a change.
Melanie: We have hope because we’ll always believe that change is worth fighting for.
Stephanie: I think in a way, we started this more out of fear than hope. We were afraid that this was going to happen to us. We were afraid that we were going to lose loved ones, if not our own lives. And at this point, having gone so far, seeing that we’re actually making a difference, the hope is that we will make a difference. And for me, it’s helped change what I feel, from fear to hope.
I appreciate the work that all of you have done, and the way that you’ve transformed fear into hope. You’ve accomplished this through your actions and your sense that together you can make a difference. And it’s that lesson that is important for me, and I know it’s important for other students and other educators around the country. So, thank you all for inviting me into your classroom. I really enjoyed this. Thank you.