Photo by Marcy Stamper
Noah Batson, Ariana Sprauer and Maya Sheely, left to right, are advocating for stricter background checks, restrictions on gun ownership and better access to mental health care.

By Marcy Stamper

Students in the Methow Valley have what they consider a straightforward demand.

“We’re looking for the epidemic of gun violence to change and for less people to be harmed or killed,” said Mia Stratman, a senior at Liberty Bell High School. “No one wants to see people killed — it doesn’t matter whether they support or reject guns.”

Shaken by the deaths of 17 students in a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the students are calling for a multi-faceted approach — including background checks, restrictions on gun ownership and better access to mental health care — to end the gun violence that has always been a reality for their generation.

“There needs to be a bunch of small changes in different areas. One big change and people would get angry,” said senior Eden Davis. “We just don’t want people dying in schools.”

His classmate Noah Batson said it’s important to tackle guns and mental health simultaneously. If you focus on only one aspect of the problem, you risk losing the other side in the process, he said. Batson said the school needs to have the infrastructure in place to support troubled students.

“A lot of things could make changes. It’s been necessary for a long time,” said senior Anna Post. “How many people have to die before everyone realizes we have to do something?”

So Methow Valley students have decided to take action. The Associated Student Body (ASB) is organizing local participation in a nationwide 17-minute walkout on March 14, the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting, to honor the 17 students who died.

The Liberty Bell student organizers are still brainstorming about how to conduct the tribute. They may read the names of all the students who died, along with a description of what they were passionate about, said Post, one of the ASB members.

They’re also thinking about sending letters to the students in Parkland. “We want to show that even in a tiny school in rural Washington, more people support them,” said Post.

Photo by Marcy Stamper
Senior Anna Post is helping organize a walkout next week to honor the students killed in Parkland.

Post announced the walkout in an email to all students at the end of February. “Many survivors, joined by hundreds of thousands of youth around the country, are tired of waiting for adults to make a change, [and] taking matters into their own hands,” she wrote. “This walkout is to advocate for stricter gun-control laws, including background checks to purchase a semi-automatic weapon, and more mental health resources.”

The main focus of the Liberty Bell walkout is a tribute to the students who were killed, said Post. The organizers were concerned that if the walkout focused only on gun control, some students might not want to participate, she said. Her email reminded people “to be respectful of everyone’s choices.”

None of the students who spoke with the Methow Valley News said they were against calls for stricter gun control, but students at the school have voiced a range of opinions in class discussions. Sophomore Maya Sheely said about half of the students in her history class condemned the idea of increased gun control, arguing that it isn’t guns that kill people, but people who kill people. Some students are concerned that more-rigorous gun control means that all guns — including hunting rifles — would be taken away, said Post.

“We grew up with these kids and understand what they do and don’t support, and are looking for the best way to reach out,” she said.

Liberty Bell High School Principal Deborah DeKalb said the administration is neutral but supportive of the student-initiated walkout. Classes will be in session for students who don’t choose to participate, but students will not be penalized for being absent.

Reduce guns in circulation

Still, many students are unequivocal about the need to reduce the number of guns overall.

“I feel strongly about violence in schools,” said Stratman, whose sister attends Methow Valley Elementary, where both of her parents are teachers. “When I think about arming teachers, I think that everyone I care about is in this building,” she said.

“Banning guns isn’t going to solve the problems, but it would help,” said Sheely.

Senior Ariana Sprauer admitted that she has strong opinions about how to make schools safer. “To make changes, you have to upset part of the population and recall semiautomatic rifles,” she said. “No one, in general life, needs an assault rifle.”

Davis supports intensified background checks and restricting access to assault rifles, along with stepped-up mental health resources in schools. “We need a more loving community so students don’t get harmed,” he said.

Despite the tight-knit community at Liberty Bell, there are still problems with bullying, said Sprauer, who was frustrated by government policies that seem inherently at odds. “They say it’s not a gun issue, but a mental health issue — but then they slash health care,” she said.

Optimism about change

Aside from the class discussions, there has been no formal response at school to the Parkland shooting, said Post. “It affected a lot of us — it was really heartbreaking and terrifying,” said Post, who said it would have been beneficial if the school had addressed the issue directly.

The school district made it clear that student and family support services are available to anyone who needs them, said Methow Valley Superintendent Tom Venable. “Adults are listening carefully and checking in with students to see if schoolwide or individual support is necessary,” he said.

Post believes the activism of the Parkland students and their peers around the country has created an environment where young people will be listened to.

Sprauer hopes that the walkout here will encourage students to write to lawmakers. “It makes a difference for kids to write. We have a platform now,” she said.

“Initially — especially this year, more than any year in the past — there’s a feeling of numbness,” said Venable. “But Parkland has changed what potentially could have been characterized as school districts and staff falling into complacency. It changed from a balance of despair to hope.”

“There’s a rejuvenated sense of energy, a desire to make it clear that this isn’t OK or how we wish to be defined in our communities. Schools are traditionally the safest places, and we want that to continue,” he said.

Parents and community members have also been galvanized by the Parkland tragedy to take action. One group is launching a local chapter of Moms Demand Action, which works to prevent gun violence. They’ve already participated in online trainings with the group, which was organized after the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, said Winthrop resident Fran Kaul. “It’s about gun sense — how to be smart if you have a gun,” she said.

With many high school seniors voting for the first time this November, Post predicted strong voter turnout.

“I think we will be the generation that has the ability to make that change,” said Stratman.