Power to the Youth: Austin High School Students Demand Gun Reform

All across the country, high school students are coming together to promote gun reform. This week, ORANGE Magazine met with students in Austin to learn about their efforts to enact change.  

Story by Sage Foster

Illustration by Ryan Hicks

On Feb. 14 a school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida left 17 dead and many more injured. Following the shooting, one of the deadliest incidents of school violence in history, students were sparked into action. A group of survivors from the shooting have since founded “Never Again MSD,” an advocacy group that fights for stricter gun regulations. In the short period of time since the tragedy took place, the group’s ability to mobilize and initiate change has been unprecedented. As a result of their efforts, the Florida legislature has passed gun control measures that raise the required age of gun ownership to 21 and increased funding for school security. The national media attention the movement has received, as well as the role social media has played in spreading awareness and effective mobilization, has resulted in increased action from students across the nation. ORANGE spoke to Austin high school students on their thoughts on gun reform.

Chloe Hightower, a sophomore at Anderson High School, joined her classmates in a walkout to advocate for  gun reform on Feb. 23. “Lots of students were coming together [before the protest] to make signs and posters. “At the beginning of third period, everyone who decided to walk out went to the front of school by the flagpole.” Over 300 students participated in the Anderson walkout, making it the biggest protest turnout of all the high schools in Austin. While Hightower acknowledges that guns can be used as a form of protection, she believes serious gun reform is necessary. “Personally, I don’t think that guns are the only way you can keep yourself safe,” Hightower says. “I think that military members and police officers are the only ones who should really be able to control guns.”

Sophia De Fiore, a Liberal Arts and Science Academy junior, thinks legislators need to take more action to hold gun sellers accountable. “It’s really scary,” De Fiore says. “I feel safe at my school, but I’m sure those kids in Florida did too. It’s scary to be a high school student in society at this point in time and to not have a clear way of getting people to change and fix the problem. I cannot comprehend why legislators don’t see gun control as an issue because it’s quite clearly an issue – kids have died. What right do legislators have to make that decision for kids they don’t even know?” This imbalance between the creators of legislation and the people who the legislation affects  is something that many students, like De Fiore, cite as an issue regarding gun laws. While students are increasingly targeted as victims of gun violence, the vast majority of them are too young to vote and thus lack tangible legislative input on the matter.

“The thing I’m most excited for is being able to vote, but I can’t do that for two  more years,” Anderson sophomore Wynnie Yeager says. “Given that the majority of people in high schools [are] not being able to contribute in that way, I feel like we’ve been doing a really good job recently. We’ve been bringing attention to ourselves in whatever way we can. Now people can see that this affects everyone, and that those who are affected by it are aware and are doing something about it.” In addition to their plans to take part in the next school walkout on April 20, Yeager and fellow sophomore Anderson student Chloe Hightower hope to enact change through their plan to start a school organization called Students Standing Together. The club will be completely student-led, and students can submit a topic or issue they believe is pertinent to the community and lead a discussion each week. They hope to collaborate with like-minded organizations on campus, like the Young Activist Club and the Black Student Alliance. “We’re going to try to converse with the administration and get something to happen about the issues that students bring to us,” Yeager says.

In regards to the school’s role in student activism, Austin students report that their teachers and principals have been relatively supportive of their efforts. According to Anderson sophomore Annabelle Gilliam, students in one of her classes received encouragement from their teacher, Dillon Braaten, about advocating for their beliefs by participating in the walkout. According to Gilliam, Braaten told the students on the day of the protest, “I’m not going to stop you, because no matter your beliefs I think we we can all agree that killing kids is wrong.” De Fiore says she is able to guage many of her teachers’ views on the subject. “While we don’t talk about their views blatantly, I get the sense that a lot of my teachers are very unhappy [with current gun policy],” De Fiore says. “And of course gun control affects them as well; if there’s a school shooting their lives are in danger as well.”

Since the Florida shooting, high schools in Austin have tightened security measures. Yeager reports that teachers are now required to keep their classroom doors closed and locked, and that one of her teachers no longer allows her students to leave the classroom during class in case of a dangerous incident. “I think it’s a valid concern, and I’m glad she’s being aware,” Yeager says. “But it’s also frustrating that we have to be so concerned about our safety that we can’t even go to the bathroom during class.” De Fiore also expressed the same concern, arguing that the onus to seek safety shouldn’t lie on students and teachers. “Schools are a place to learn and they’re supposed to be places where we feel safe and comfortable. At this point in time I think a lot of students don’t feel safe in their schools, and that shouldn’t be something that anyone experiences so young in their lives,” De Fiore says. Both De Fiore and Yeager suggested that schools consider prioritizing aids like mental health counseling and education to help students to cope with these traumas. Still, they expressed that the responsibility for students’ safety and wellbeing fundamentally remains on the legislature.

In her efforts to educate herself on the issue of gun reform, Gilliam sought out multiple perspectives. “I don’t want to be in an echo chamber,” Gilliam says. After listening to a diverse array of opinions on the issue, Gilliam agrees with her fellow students ideas about the government’s responsibility to keep students safe. “I think we need to stop beating around the bush and protecting schools from the inside out and start protecting them from the outside in, so to speak,” Gilliam says. “I think the 2nd amendment has been a little bit twisted in favor of a more conservative worldview in this day in age, and it’s hurting our children.” Though Gilliam was unable to attend the most recent school-wide walkout at Anderson, she plans to share her voice by taking part in the upcoming walkout in April.

Social media has been an invaluable tool in aiding successful mobilization for walkouts and protests. In addition to being an excellent communication source, it has allowed students to connect with one another on a common ground, in a space in which they have personal control. “In the past, high school students have been powerless to take part in legislative reform, but now I think the use of social media has definitely helped [the movement] along,” says De Fiore. “I think with this particular incident students have gotten to play a more important role in legislation.” Since Feb. 14, American students’ abilities to enact change without legislative power has been remarkably successful, and has added momentum to a previously slower process. In Austin and across America, students without voting power are determined to campaign for their rights through protest. Hightower praises this impassioned protest and dialogue, but cautions against too much reliance on one form of advocacy. “I feel like the protests are showing that we as students are noticing something that needs to be changed, but I was trying to express with my fellow classmates that I don’t think just walking out is going to be enough,” says Hightower. “I think we also need to come together as a student body, as schools, to contact our government officials.”