Teacher Jessica Catrett was searching for a way for her eighth-grade students to express their concerns about gun violence that would be different and safer than this week’s planned nationwide walkout.
Calls for student walkouts across the nation March 14 are to honor the victims of the deadly school shooting in Florida last month.
While driving to work on a recent morning, the topic of walkouts was being discussed on a radio show Catrett was listening to, and it was then she came up with an alternative.
“I wanted to give them a different voice,” Catrett said of her West Hall Middle School students.
So Catrett had her students begin thinking about what it would be like if 17 people they cared about died, hoping to drive home the magnitude of the loss students at Marjory Douglas High School were feeling.
“They’ve grown up in an environment where school shootings are very common now,” Catrett said, adding that it’s left many students desensitized to such horror and tragedy.
Catrett then had her students choose 17 people at the school — whether teachers, friends, classmates or administrators — write their name on a ribbon of paper and why each person was important to them.
The strips of paper were then linked together in a long chain and will be hung in the halls of the school.
The idea became a substitute for any walkout and began to take off, with other teachers and classes also joining in the activity.
“(Catrett) has developed an alternative for her students that encourages them to link language arts content with current events and concerns,” Principal Rodney Stephens said.
Catrett said it was about solidarity with her students in a time when “politics gets a hold of the situation and we kind of lose the humility of it all.”
When The Times visited Catrett’s class last week, the impact of this initiative was evident in the words dozens of students used to express their thoughts on the shooting, the gun control debate that has ensued in its aftermath and how their generation copes with school violence.
“Somebody always brought it up,” said Mason Andrews, adding that the Florida shooting was a topic of conversation nearly all day, every day in school for the past few weeks.
Andrews has a sibling and mother who attend and work in local public schools, so the fear of losing them in an on-campus shooting is all too real, he said.
“I’m from there,” Emma Anzaldi said, referring to the place in Florida where the school shooting happened. “It hit closer to home.”
Catrett’s students said they watched and consumed the massive news coverage of the Florida shooting and the public aftermath. They shared stories, discussed it on social media and watched videos taken by students inside the school while the shooting was occurring.
“It was especially really scary because we’re going to high school, and seeing those videos where there was people dead on the floor, thinking that could be my friends — you just don’t want to think about it,” Athena Lux said.
And it was scarier still because these students had experienced a school lockdown drill just a week or so prior to the shooting.
Thalia Stewart said school shootings had become so commonplace that it is normal these days for students to expect the worst might happen any day.
Several students said they had discussed the shooting with their parents and that their mothers and fathers had expressed anger, grief and fear over what their children might one day face in school.
“They want me to get an education, but if I’m going somewhere that’s dangerous, they just have to pray every day when I go to school,” Teresa Linares said.
Xiomara Cardenas said some students come from unstable homes and that school offers a safe place to learn and make friends. But that sense of security is threatened these days, she added.
Samuel Waller said he had discussed the Florida shooting with his mother and agreed that it feels like these violent incidents are getting closer to home, like a battleship approaching and within striking range.
That sense of inevitably, or that there is only so much that can be done to protect students, was shared among the class.
Catrett said there was a division in the days after the shooting last month, with students guessing and pointing out who among their classmates they thought was capable of such a violent act.
“I didn’t want this to divide them,” she said of the proposed walkout. “I wanted it to bring them together so they could help each other.”
Students said the exercise of writing the names of 17 people they care for and linking those together into a long chain was a more powerful and actionable way to address their concerns.
“It means more to us,” Chloe Radich said.
“It made us think about how important our friends are to us,” Angelica Lux said.
“It makes us think deeper about how we care about people,” Dawn Dollins said.
Grace Van Aken said the idea of a walkout held no real feeling or connection for her and other students.
“(Catrett) started a little chain reaction,” she said. “It brought to light the fact that we could lose these people so dear to our hearts.”
Students said they understand that safety at school cannot be guaranteed, and while expressing varying opinions on gun control legislation, they dismissed calls to arm teachers, saying it would make schools more dangerous.
They also fear the walkout itself might be unsafe and make students an easy target for someone looking for an opportunity to strike.
“There’s always going to be a risk,” Nick Sturm said.
The Lux sisters, in a moment of levity, said they would tell on each other if one of them had any bad plans.
But they also said it’s not enough to say “rest in peace” to those who have already lost their life in a school shooting.
Students agreed keeping the conversation going and maintaining the momentum and desire to create safer schools and reduce gun violence is critical moving forward.
“This group is my group of leaders,” Catrett said. “They’re so in tune with what’s going on in the world and they’re not afraid to talk about it. I’m so proud of them.”