Friday, April 20 marked National School Walkout Day, when teens across the country left their classrooms in protest of the gun violence epidemic sweeping across America.
However, the teens enrolled in Bordentown Regional High School’s epidemiology (or public health) class, wanted to take the movement one step further.
The students, under the guidance of teacher Rebecca Jacobson, selected the day which commemorated the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting, to conduct the course’s annual Day of Action.
That same Friday, Bordentwon Regional Middle School held a walkout to commemorate those lost in the Columbine school shooting.
Every year students in the course select a public health crisis to focus on, and organize workshops to raise awareness of the issue. In the past, topics have included mental health and the opioid crisis. This year’s public health topic of choice: gun violence.
“Gun violence affects everyone…That’s why it’s very important for everyone in Bordentown to heed what we are saying,” said Kasi Oguonu, a senior who helped organize the workshops.
The students who enrolled in the class, which is offered as an elective, worked for months to research and organize workshops to address a wide variety of topics relating to gun violence.
Presentations ranged from the intersection of race, gender and class with gun violence, to an open forum on the National Rifle Association and the Second Amendment.
The students in the class conducted a school wide survey to see which topics would spark the most interest in the student body. So many students responded expressing interest in the topic of school shooters that the class decided to split that workshop into two groups.
“This is the first year we’ve made the event an opt-in, because of the touchy nature of the subject…We wanted this one to be optional,” said Jacobsen, who also teaches biology at the high school. She continued, “We wanted to start from the common ground that kids getting shot is a bad thing.”
Over 200 students signed up to participate in the Day of Action, which included activities like writing letters to congressional and district representatives and discussing the subject with peers.
To raise awareness, the students running the workshop sold bright orange shirts with the slogan “No more silence, stop gun violence” emblazoned on the front. The back of the shirts listed schools affected by gun violence and the slogan made famous by the Parkland school massacre survivors, “#Neveragain.”
“We did have a longer list of schools,” said Jacobsen, “but we had to take some off because the font size was getting too small.”
All of the profits from the T-shirts went to fund research conducted by the organization Everytown for Gun Safety. This organization was selected in part because the Center for Disease Control cannot fund research on America’s gun violence epidemic due to the Dickey Amendment, enacted in 1996.
Those who didn’t buy a shirt were encouraged to wear orange.
The event, which took place during the last period of the school day, was advertised by members of the class. The word was spread via morning announcements, Snapchat stories of students and through Twitter.
One aspect of the day that the students wished to stress was the open nature of the event, as each workshop had a designated time for open discussion among students and staff about gun violence.
Before the seminar on school shooters began, one presenter stated, “We’re here to inform you, not persuade you.”
In that same seminar, statistics flashed up on a projection screen and students in the audience were asked to hold up “fact” or “fiction” cards for each slide.
Videos portraying possible warning signs of those intending to carry out a school shooting were played for the audience, as well as a video about the Columbine shooting. This video attempted to dispel some stereotypes usually associated with school shooters.
The students also explained the difference between a psychotic, psychopathic and traumatized school shooter.
In the workshop addressing the topics of race, gender and class in relation to gun violence, the students leading the presentation used quotes from teen activists Emma González and David Hogg to get their message across.
In regard to media coverage of the Parkland tragedy, Hogg recently discussed how the coverage was not giving black students a voice, and that this population, which makes up 25 percent of the student body at Parkland, was over-shadowed in the wake of the attack.
Students in the audience were also provided with resources to look up who their representatives are and websites of different organizations promoting gun safety.
When asked if contacting congressional members will help the problem, Oguonu, who was leading the workshop replied, “Yes, if we act as a group. They have to represent us, or else we will vote them out.”
The discussion session following a presentation about the NRA and Second Amendment veered into topics like mental health, suicide and the banning of assault rifles.
At one point a student moderator responded to an audience member saying, “We’re not trying to take away everyone’s gun. We’re trying to take them away from the people who do the most harm.”
Several students in the audience wore NRA apparel and badges to show their support for the gun organization.
Asked about any potential divide this event could create in the student body, senior Eric Price stated, “This isn’t a hush-hush kind of thing. Everyone is welcome. Just because we have different political views doesn’t mean we’re not friends.”
Overall, students in the epidemiology class were satisfied with the turnout of the event and how it ran overall.
“We thought this was the most relevant topic…What you need is momentum,” said senior Evan Braasch, in regards to organizing the event.
Renata Teichmann also felt the workshops went well, saying “Everyone in our group really listened. Nobody was on their cellphones and we showed some intense videos.”
The students speculate that participation was so high because the event wasn’t mandatory and was open to those who expressed interest in the topic.
The school also held a school-wide walkout last month in memory of the students who died in the Parkland shooting. Students stood still in 17 minutes of silence to honor the victims.
“We saw today as an opportunity for education,” said Jacobsen after the event.
Though the administration mostly supervised the workshops, the students hope that “the staff came out leaning something as well,” said Kyree Adams, a senior. Of the group interviewed, he was the only individual eligible to vote.
“The administration was amazing,” said Jacobsen. “They were very supportive of the project.”
Regarding the goals set for the event, Braasch stated, “We want the student body to be educated. The ultimate goal was for people to go out and make change for themselves… to absorb this information, process it, then take action for more gun control.”
Letters, some over a page long, were collected from students who wished to spark change by contacting their local representatives.
From the organizational skills and participation of the Bordentown students, it is clear that the reach of social activism is making its way across the country, into the lives of those who will soon become the nation’s youngest voters.