When Ethan Block first heard about the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, he knew what to expect.
“We’ve seen it time and time again,” the Hopewell Valley Central High School sophomore said. “The immediate response is thoughts and prayers. It’s too early to talk about this. Don’t use this for political gain, and then we don’t ever end up talking about it.”
Parkland, however, was different. The students who survived a mass shooting at their high school demanded change from lawmakers and ignited a national conversation on gun control.
When Block and his classmates heard about peaceful protests being planned around the nation — the National School Walkout and March For Our Lives — they wanted to get involved. The aftermath of this school shooting was different because students finally had a say in the debate about how to keep their schools safe, and students at Hopewell Valley were ready to join the conversation.
“It’s really terrible to see people your age killed as a result of gun violence, and it really does hit close to home for a lot of us,” Block said. “And I think it’s important that the schools themselves show we’re behind the Parkland kids in their movement, and that we support them 100 percent.”
Block and his classmates organized a walkout at their high school on March 14 in solidarity with the National School Walkout. A smaller number of Hopewell students will also be attending the March For Our Lives in Philadelphia, a sister march to the one being held in D.C., on March 24. The goal of the march, according to organizers, is to demand that their lives become a priority for lawmakers and to end gun violence and mass shootings in schools.
While the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland happened thousands of miles from Hopewell, many local students said it felt personal.
“If you look at that community [Parkland] it’s really not that much different than Hopewell,” Block said. “It happened there, so why can’t it happen here?”
A few weeks before the National School Walkout — held exactly one month after the shooting at Parkland — students met with school administrators to discuss hosting a walkout at Central High School. While the walkout was led by the students, the administration worked with them to ensure their safety wasn’t jeopardized during the event.
“The original plan was to have all the students line the hallways holding signs and pictures and have the names of those that were killed read aloud,” sophomore Alexandra Franzino said. “A lot of students didn’t like the idea because they thought that took away from the actual walking out.”
In addition to the hallway memorial, a group of Hopewell students joined thousands of other students across the nation who walked out of their classrooms to remember the 17 people killed in Parkland. Hopewell students gathered at the turf field and read the names of the victims aloud.
While school safety was the main focus of the Hopewell Valley walkout, Block and Franzio told the Express in an interview that you can’t truly discuss school safety without also discussing gun control.
“I think getting to the problem of guns themselves is the issue,” Block said. “It’s not really about how we can fortify our schools, but it’s how can we stop this incoming threat in the first place.”
Students interviewed agree with many of the legislative efforts the Parkland students are fighting to get enacted — raising the legal age limit to buy guns, banning bump stocks and assault rifles such as the AR-15 that was used in the Parkland shooting, the Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre, and the Newtown school shooting.
The students view suggestions that involve arming teachers as ignorant and destructive proposals. “There’s a lot of things that can go wrong if you arm an entire school,” Block said.
While it may be tempting for older adults to dismiss students’ concerns because of their age, Block believes they’re bringing a new perspective to the issue as a generation who has never known a world without mass shootings.
The students appear to be making an impact. 62 percent of Americans feel that the Parkland students are effective advocates for gun control, and a majority of the public believes these students are having more impact on the gun debate than previous victims of mass shootings, according to the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
Franzio and Block know the conversation about gun control needs to continue in order for meaningful change to be enacted, which is why they’re not stopping their activism efforts after the walkout. Both students are on the student outreach committee for the March For Our Lives Philadelphia, and Block is a student leader for the march as well.
March For Our Lives Philadelphia is one of roughly 800 gun control marches being held around the world this Saturday. The students have been busy getting the word out about the Philadelphia march to their classmates as well as other school districts from around the county. Their goal is to bring as many local students to the march as possible.
Juggling activism with their schoolwork, sports and other extracurricular activities has been a lot of work for the students, but the idea of creating safer schools and communities makes it all worth it.
“We’ve never really done anything like this, we’ve never organized anything like this, so it really is a brand new experience,” Block said. “We’re really enjoying it. It’s a lot of work, but when it really comes down to the end result it’s going to bring to the table, it’s worth it all.”