The Parkland massacre 2 years ago — and a subsequent assault rifle scare at their own school — affected, then galvanized many Staples High students.
Elana Atlas was just a freshman. But she organized a national letter-writing campaign to legislators, and created a website — Action Against Gun Violence — filled with background information on school shootings; texts sent by terrified students in the midst of gunfire; counter-arguments to the “right to bear arms” clause; links to gun safety organizations; advice on how to start your own movement — and of course, her letter templates.
Elana Atlas, at work 2 years ago.
Two years later, the epidemic continues unabated. But — rather than being discouraged, or overwhelmed by the pressures of being a Staples junior — Elana is committed more than ever to doing what she can to making America’s schools and streets safe for everyone.
In the aftermath of Parkland, she joined fellow Stapleites Audrey Bernstein, Ruby Coleman, Kaela Dockray, Brooke Kessler, Peri Kessler and Eliza Oren in creating a local high school chapter of Students Demand Action. That’s the national organization — affiliated with Everytown for Gun Safety — fighting for common sense gun reform and usage.
Now, Elana has helped turned it into an official Staples High School club.
She’s sparked a number of intriguing projects. The group is working on an open letter to Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader who has stalled most gun legislation in that chamber. They’re coordinating with student groups around the country — especially in McConnell’s home state of Kentucky — to get viral social media attention.
Staples’ Students Demand Action and the Westport/Fairfield Moms Demand Action chapter presented a panel on gun violence in schools. Elana was one of the speakers.
Next month, and again in June, the students will commemorate Parkland.
Right now, they’re gearing up for their biggest event yet. On Friday, January 24 (3 p.m., Toquet Hall), Students Demand Action sponsors “An Afternoon of Gun Prevention and Activism.”
Toquet will hum with activities. There will be information about local, state and national legislators’ stands on gun laws; signmaking (with photos, to post on social media); voter registration, and speakers, including lawmakers, studens, and Tara Donnelly Gottlieb, whose parents were killed in 2005 during a robbery of their Fairfield jewelry store.
The goal, Elana says, is to show that the Westport gun violence movement remains strong — and help people get involved.
In 2018, Staples High School students stood in the courtyard to demand action on gun violence. They’re still going strong. (Photo/Ali Feder)
“An Afternoon of Gun Prevention and Activism” is open to all. Elana hopes many high school students will attend, and that parents will bring their children too.
“It will be uplifting — not gory,” she promises.
And very, very important.
(Pre-registration is not mandatory, but it helps for planning numbers. Click here to pre-register.)
Retired Episcopal Bishop Jim Curry preached on his work of taking guns off the street, and transforming them into garden tools. He was joined by Jeremy Stein, executive director of CT Against Gun Violence.
After the service, Rev. Curry fired up his forge in the courtyard, and demonstrated the transformation.
Linda Hudson and Bishop Suffragan (ret.) Jim Curry, hard at work.
Truly, he practiced what he preached.
“Swords into plowshares; guns into gardening tools.” (Photos/Stephen Axthelm)
In the wake of last weekend’s mass shootings, First Selectman Jim Marpe says:
Following the tragic events in Charlottesville 2 years ago, I stated that “there is no place for hatred and bigotry in our country,” and expressed our community’s prayers for the victims of that senseless tragedy.
Those events led to the “Hate Has No Home Here” movement in Westport and other communities. Last year, after the Parkland, Florida tragedy, I again addressed the issue of gun control and sensible gun legislation.
After another weekend of shocking headlines involving mass shootings which obviously have roots in white supremacy, and frankly, 2 more years of incidents similar to Charlottesville and Parkland, we are still faced with the challenge of inflammatory public rhetoric and hate-filled internet postings and activity.
We are fortunate that Westport is represented by national, state and local legislators and elected officials who act and speak responsibly in the face of these divisive issues. They are committed to pursuing and enforcing responsible and effective gun control legislation, as well as condemning the racial biases demonstrated by others.
The fact that these incidents are happening on a regular basis is appalling. Each time I am asked to address them both personally and in my role as first selectman, it is done with an extremely heavy heart.
Although recent national incidents were much more horrific and tragic, the sentiment where I prompted a call to civility and respect to all Westporters after an unfortunate incident during a local public meeting last year holds true today.
I stated, “We will continue to publicly deal with issues and challenges that ignite passions on all sides, but we can’t let those passions create an air of disrespect, intimidation and bullying. I implore all Westport residents to allow their personal and public interactions to be driven by respect, tolerance and a desire to coexist in a positive manner with all of our neighbors.”
I will continue to address this issue within our community, and I will continue to denounce any form of hatred, bigotry or cultural bias.
Final exams loomed. But Staples High School’s Students Demand Action club was all-in to participate in this past weekend’s national Wear Orange event, to raise awareness of gun violence, and promote a future free from it.
Club members put up many signs, including a big banner in front of the school. They chalked the sidewalks and staffed an information table during lunch, where they handed out information, signed up teachers and students for the Connecticut Against Gun Violence email list, and gave away orange pens, bracelets, pins, stickers and shirts.
They also created a poster wall, where anyone could write about “Why I Wear Orange.”
Final exams began today. But members of the Students Demand Action club have already earned an A+ in civic engagement.
Yesterday was the 1st anniversary of the Marjory Douglas Stoneman massacre. Across the country, we remembered the 17 students and staff members murdered in their Florida high school.
Survivors — and countless others with no connection to the school — believed that finally, something would change. At rallies, online and in legislatures, calls for new gun regulations grew stronger.
Yet in the year that followed, 1,200 children and teenagers have been killed.
Far fewer people know their names, or where they lived, than know the Parkland students. Their stories have never been told.
“Since Parkland” is a powerful media project. With the help of the Miami Herald, McClatchy publishing company and The Trace — an independent, non-profit news organization — 200 journalists set out to profile all 1,200 people 18 and under killed by guns. Since Parkland.
The Since Parkland home page.
Sophie Driscoll is a proud participant in this important effort.
Like many Staples High students, she’s busy. She’s an editor-in-chief of Inklings, the school’s award-winning newspaper. She’s president of the Young Democrats.
But she made time for “Since Parkland.” And she helped make it a stunning piece of journalism.
A year ago, Sophie published a story in Ms. Magazine. It started as a piece about Reshaping Reality — the Staples club that helps middle schoolers and their parents deal with body image, eating disorders and social pressures. But it soon became much more.
Sophie’s piece highlighted teenage feminists who started clubs at their high schools. She interviewed students in all over the US. It was “interesting and exciting,” she says. She worked with an actual editor, Katina Paron.
Last summer, Sophie joined 83 other rising seniors for a 5-week journalism program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. While she was there, Katina called. She was looking for students with “good research skills,” for a project she described only vaguely.
In early August, Sophie and dozens of others participated in a video conference. They learned a bit more about “Since Parkland.”
Sophie was assigned 6 stories. There was Nicholas Glasco, 18 of Stone Mountain Georgia, shot accidentally by a friend a month before his high school graduation.
Christopher Jake Stone, 17, was one of 10 killed and 13 injured at Santa Fe (Texas) High School, 3 months after Parkland. He was trying to block the door to his classroom to prevent the gunman’s entry.
Tahji McGill, 17, was shot outside an Illinois club.
Chavelle Tramon Thompson, 17, was murdered while walking with friends to a store in Union City, Georgia.
In Virginia, a 2-year-old died when his 4-year-old brother accidentally shot him in the head. The very same day — also in Virginia — another 2-year-old was killed. He shot himself with a handgun he’d found.
The story that resonated the most with Sophie was Xantavian Pierce’s. She wrote:
The Brunswick High School athlete played basketball and football. The numbers on his jerseys were 15 and 28, respectively. Throughout his athletic career, the 17-year-old worked to make his mother proud. She said he succeeded.
“He was amazing,” his mother said. “He was wonderful. He was a loving, God-fearing child. He was just a wonderful person. He was my heartbeat.”
Xantavian “Tae” Pierce was helping someone move when a gun went off inside a box he was carrying, accidentally shooting him in the stomach at the Eagles Pointe Apartments in Brunswick, Georgia, on March 25, 2018.
“He was a straight arrow, close with his family,” Sophie says. “He was just like someone I’d know at Staples.”
The process was wrenching. Sophie tracked down news reports, and scrutinized Facebook pages. She read what family members, friends and teachers said.
“They seem like such vibrant, alive, regular kids,” she notes.
Each profile is 3 paragraphs long. The first 2 give life to each young person. The 3rd describes his or her death.
That was hard. “I had to take a step back, and write as if he was alive,” Sophie says. But they were not.
The research itself was arduous. Sophie was stunned to discover there is no national database to track gun deaths. State records might list a date — but no name. Sometimes, there was not even a local news report.
It was a truly collaborative process. The 200 young writers — from across the nation — used the Slack app and Zoom video conferencing to work together. They helped find information, and supported each other through tough times.
Still, they did not realize the scope of the project — or how it would appear online — until nearly the end.
And “the end” was, literally, 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday, February 13. Just as they had every day — Since Parkland — young people were killed that night.
The project drew immediate attention. The New York Timeshighlighted it. Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy — a staunch gun regulation advocate — tweeted about it.
Sophie — who hopes to pursue journalism in college, and beyond — notes, “this was journalism, not activism.” But — like all good journalism — she hopes it will force people to think about an issue in deep, different ways.
Her goal — and that of every student journalist — was to humanize all 1,200 young people lost to gun violence Since Parkland.
“The statistics are staggering,” Sophie says. “But each statistic is a human being.
“These kids are not statistics. They’re athletes, artists. A lot were college bound. It’s so hard to think about the people they were, and could have become.”
It is hard. But — thanks to Sophie Driscoll, and scores of other determined high school students across America — right now we are doing just that.
(Click here for the 6 stories written by Sophie Driscoll. Click here for the “Since Parkland” home page.)
In March, over 1,000 Staples High School students walked out of class. Massed in the fieldhouse, they honored the 17 slain students and teachers of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and demanded sensible gun legislation.
It was a powerful display of activism. But many Westporters wondered whether the teenage leaders could sustain their momentum.
A month later, a smaller — but still substantial — group of students headed to the high school courtyard. In the afternoon, a few dozen assembled on Veterans Green, across from Town Hall.
Again, their message centered on stopping gun violence.
And again, the question hung: Are these kids in it for the long run?
Last month, Staples High School students stood in the courtyard to demand action on gun violence. (Photo/Ali Feder)
There’s now a Staples chapter of Students Demand Action. That’s the national organization — affiliated with Everytown for Gun Safety — fighting for common sense gun reform and usage. Westport leaders include Elana Atlas, Audrey Bernstein, Ruby Coleman, Kaela Dockray, Brooke Kessler, Peri Kessler and Eliza Oren.
The end of the school year is in sight — the busiest time of year. Seniors have already headed off to internships.
But Students Demand Action are in the thick of things. They meet regularly, to strategize and plan activities.
Their first big event is a #WearOrange campaign. That’s the official color of gun violence — because it was what Hadiya Pendleton’s friends wore to honor her. She was killed at age 15 — just a week after performing at President Obama’s 2nd inauguration.
On the weekend of June 1-3, the group will paint the town orange. It’s part of a nationwide effort.
“We’re fighting to take back power from the gun lobby,” says Staples chapter co-founder Elana Atlas.
“We would love for the rest of the community to fight with us as we demand action from legislators on a local, state and federal level, as well as businesses and schools to implement common-sense gun reforms. We need to end the epidemic of gun violence in America.”
(For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org)
More than a dozen Westporters traveled to Hartford today. They testified before the Judiciary Committee, supporting a bill that bans bump stocks and related rifle accessories.
Alert “06880” reader Jaimie Dockray reports that at least 11 students were at the state capitol. Lily Kane testified. Kaela Dockray submitted written testimony. She and her mom had to catch a train to Washington for tomorrow’s March For Our Lives.
First Selectman Jim Marpe and Third Selectman Melissa Kane both testified. “They were awesome,” Jaimie Dockray says.
“The chairman of the committee asked their party affiliations, knowing they are on opposite sides of the political spectrum. When asked if they agreed on this issue, they emphatically answered ‘yes.’ They said their only problem was keeping their combined testimony to under 3 minutes.”
Lily Kane is interviewed at the Capitol. (Photo/Jaimie Dockray)
She’s just a freshman — though you wouldn’t know it from her activism.
Elana Atlas, at work.
First, she composed 3 letters. One is for Republican legislators. Another is for Democrats. The third is for President Trump.
Though each is different, they share the same message: The founding fathers gave all of us rights to life and security. They did not give anyone the right to an AR-15.
“I am not asking you to ban all guns,” Elana writes. “I am asking you to ban the ones that are not necessary, that aren’t our right to have, the ones that are meant for mass killing. These include all automatic and semiautomatic guns, as well as bump stocks.”
Her letter ends, “We are fed up with thoughts and prayers. The time for change is now.”
Elana distributed the letters to friends across the country, and asked them to pass it on too. She called them templates, which anyone could revise as they wished.
But she wanted even more people to see her letter — and learn about gun issues.
The result is ActionAgainstGunViolence. The strongly researched, well-presented website, is a go-to site for anyone interested in facts, resources and action.
Elana Atlas’ website includes these heartbreaking texts between Parkland High School student Matthew Zeif and his younger brother Ben.
Elana has collected background information on the epidemic of school shootings; texts sent by terrified students in the midst of gunfire; counter-arguments to the “right to bear arms” clause; links to gun safety organizations; advice on how to start your own movement — and of course, her letter templates.
She even cites all her sources. Her teachers have taught her well.
Now — like students all across this town and country — she is taking everything she’s learned in school.
On March 24, hundreds of thousands of people of all ages will descend on Washington, DC. “March For Our Lives” will demand an end to gun violence in America’s schools.
Here in Westport, hundreds will march too.
Phillip Addario, Bruce Chapman and Adria Belport are organizing a Westport March For Our Lives candlelight vigil.
Participants meet at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 24 in the Bartaco parking lot. With candles and posters, they’ll walk to the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Post Road bridge — site of many citizen gatherings over the decades — and then on to Main Street.
“We believe the time is now to demand action from legislators, state and federal agencies, corporations, and educational institutions to establish common-sense gun reform,” Belport says.
“Together with our collective voices, we can help end gun violence in our schools and communities.”
The Westport Downtown Merchants Association will distribute information and posters. The organization encourages merchants who align with the cause to support or participate too.
(Click here for more information, on the event’s Facebook page.)
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