Opinion | A K-12 education plagued by gun violence every step of the way


Tarek Anthony, Staff Writer

Innocence is the idealistic yet intangible concept every parent hopes to preserve in their child by shielding their children from the realities of our toxic world. If you asked any adult to identify the day their innocence was taken, they might not be able to answer. However, growing up in the 2010s, I could answer that question with devastating ease; December 14, 2012. On that day, 26 people were murdered inside an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. At just seven years old, I could see the despair and fear in my parent’s eyes when I returned home from school that night. Per usual, the media attention came and went and despite my parents’ best efforts to harbor me from the news and preserve my “innocence,” they failed. My view of a perfect world was gone, lost into a deep hole of perpetual cynicism. While my innocence was gone, those 20 children’s lives had been taken.

Twenty innocent children had been killed, and I was only left to ruminate on the idea that my school could be next. I dreaded every lockdown drill because it made the reality of a school shooting become all too real. In fact, I vividly remember after a lockdown drill in fourth grade, sitting on the carpet for reading time, when I began to daydream; my daydreaming, however, wasn’t a typical fourth grader daydreaming about recess or a play date, but instead, I sat in my classroom, contemplating where I would hide if a gunman entered my school, wishing to be in the classroom across the hallway with hiding places that I thought were better. Growing up in a gun-infested society, I quickly learned to internalize my young fears, and to this day, no one knows the number of times I’ve sat in class, fearing the what if’s of a school shooting. Yet while I sat in class, 20 kids sat in their graves, 20 kids who won’t have the privilege of graduating high school.

Americans’ unexplained infatuation with guns has always perplexed me, and after every school shooting from Sandy Hook, to Parkland, to Uvalde and so many in between, I always find myself trying to comprehend such an incomprehensible, uniquely American problem; one that has swept through our nation killing hundreds of students and educators over the past 10-plus years. As my high school graduation rapidly approaches, I frequently find myself reflecting upon my childhood, one marred with distinct vivid memories of major school shootings, each one its own mini-movie in my head, remembering exactly where I was and how I reacted. I find myself pondering the what-ifs of a childhood that was prematurely stolen from me by American society, wondering if and how I would be different if it weren’t for three administrations of inaction leading to hundreds of school shootings in my childhood. I wonder, would I still struggle with crippling anxiety? Would I have enjoyed middle school and high school? Would I be less cynical? All these questions are of course unanswerable, yet they still manage to keep me up at night.

February 14, 2018, is a day forever seared into my memory. I had finished my 7th grade history work in time for free time on our school-issued iPads. I opened one up just in time to see hundreds of kids fleeing Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, running for their lives. Little did I know that this shooting would lead to the largest student protests in the country. A few days after the shooting, I marched out of school with my fellow classmates, except I didn’t return. I walked downtown and into Representative Robyn Gabel’s office and asked her what I could do, at my age, to stop the violence. She encouraged me to write letters to some representatives who had recently voted against Senate Bill 1657, which involved gun dealer licensing. I returned home and wrote a letter to all 52 representatives who voted no. I implored them to take action, asking them why a 12-year boy should dread going to school in fear of being shot. Of the 52 only six responded, and per usual, I was given the typical 2nd Amendment runaround, yet while I had the opportunity of conversing with my lawmakers, 17 more kids sat in their graves. 17 more kids robbed of the privilege of graduating high school.

At the expense of hundreds of lives lost, I have consequently grown; learning to live without perpetual fear of something I can’t control while refusing to become complacent to the constant threat of being gunned down in my own school. In December of my junior year, I recall crouching in an Anatomy closet huddled with dead rats and 20 of my classmates for four hours. As the minutes ticked on, I remember thinking to myself, “Is this the day an AR-15 hits Evanston?” Trembling in the closet, frantically texting my mom and scrolling through Twitter desperate for information, I almost made peace with the fact that I had gone 16 years without a school shooting, and that today may be the day. In those four hours, I changed from sympathizing to empathizing, knowing the reality that my school was almost next on the list of American tragedies. Yet, while I sat in the closet shaking, three more kids from Oxford, gunned down just weeks before, sat in their graves. I received the privilege to live another day, a privilege I’m not allowed to take for granted in this gun-plagued country.

In middle school, I tried to protect myself with an utterly false sense of security, frequently telling myself that if I could just make it through high school without being shot, then I would be set and my anxiety would go away. How naive. Just three months ago, I sat in bed at 11:00 p.m. at night with a police scanner app in hand, listening to the aftermath of an attack on innocent students at Michigan State University. The words “the suspect has shot himself in the head. The suspect is deceased” are something that played on repeat in my mind for weeks. It reiterated that no matter where I go or what I do after high school, I will always be a sitting duck. It reiterated that there is no place in this country immune to gun violence as long as we continue to place AR-15s in the hands of mentally ill individuals; nowhere is safe and nowhere will be safe until we ban assault weapons in all forms.

So as we graduate from high school, we must remember all those who had that opportunity violently stolen from them. As we celebrate such a big accomplishment in our young lives, we must remember all those who can not celebrate with us, students who won’t celebrate commitment day, who won’t attend prom, participate in a senior prank, write a senior column or walk the stage, all fun right of passages which were robbed from them.

It is up to our generation to give our children and grandchildren a childhood where they can sit in class and worry about their homework or their sports tryouts, not being shot. We must take action because ultimately, school is a place for growth, not fear; learning, not terror; friendship, not violence; development, not death.