By Brenda Ortega, MEA Voice Editor
Michigan Education Association
MEA member Leah Ramirez is sick and tired.
Sick of conducting practice lock downs to prepare against potential violence with her kindergarten students in Northview Public Schools in Grand Rapids. Tired of trying to reassure them they are safe despite the grim reason behind the drills.
“The day after Uvalde, I was standing there as my students were entering the building, and I just got overwhelmed with emotion and started crying,” Ramirez said. “I had to hide from my kids, because I was watching them walk in and thinking, ‘What would I do if this happened to us?’”
A week after their schools let out for summer, Ramirez and fellow MEA member and Northview literacy specialist Elizabeth Renato drove to Lansing on Saturday to join hundreds of thousands of people across the country demonstrating for common-sense gun laws to save lives.
Renato said she didn’t want to send her own three children to school after watching news accounts of yet another mass shooting on May 24, this time in Uvalde, Texas, where an 18-year-old gunman massacred 19 fourth graders and two teachers with a legally purchased AR-15.
Coming to the March for Our Lives helped her connect with others and feel less helpless and hopeless, Renato said. She was heartened by the words of U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who related the struggle to act on gun dangers to controversy years ago over requiring car seats for young children.
“Coming here and hearing everybody speak was important just to know we’re not alone and that something can be done if we stay together and keep fighting,” Renato said.
Marches were held in more than 300 cities across the U.S. on June 11, including Detroit, Ann Arbor, Traverse City, and Port Huron. More than 600 marchers showed up in Oxford, where just six months ago four students were shot and killed by a classmate.
The events nationwide were led by students. In Oxford one of the student organizers, Dylan Morris, told the crowd in his community, “we know thoughts and prayers are not enough.” Those young people have formed a nonprofit, No Future Without Today, to advocate for gun reform and mental health resources.
Speakers at the march included Reina St. Juliana, whose 14-year-old sister Hana was one of those killed. “We should not have to be resilient after watching our friends die, and we should not have to be strong after our siblings are murdered,” she said.
“We will not accept a country where bullet casings are found in hallways, where blood is on the walls and dead children’s bodies lay on school grounds.”
For Melissa Gibbons, an Oxford English teacher who locked down with students in the high school during the Nov. 30 shooting as her daughters huddled in a different classroom, the determined leadership of young people on an issue that has felt intractable offers hope and energy to keep going.
Gibbons traveled to Washington D.C. alongside an Oxford colleague and other educators who survived school shootings for the march on the National Mall. The whirlwind trip spurred thoughts of Parkland, Florida students who organized a massive march in 2018 after a classmate killed 17 people in their school.
Now those young adults are joined by “amazing students” from across the country who are “wanting to take the power back,” Gibbons said. “If these kids who lost their classmates—who saw the destruction in the hallway—if they can do this, then I should be able to do this.”
Gibbons and Oxford teacher and fellow MEA member Lauren Rambo stood with educators from Parkland, Newtown and Columbine behind NEA President Becky Pringle during her speech before a crowd of thousands stretching toward the Washington Monument.
“We couldn’t see exactly how many people were there until we got on stage,” Gibbons said. “At that moment it was breathtaking in some ways; it was heartbreaking in some ways. I was really glad I had my sunglasses on because I did start crying. It was overwhelming with not only what Becky was saying but with all the thousands of people who were out there supporting.”
A highlight of the day for both Gibbons and Rambo was meeting survivors of the Columbine shooting who continue to teach in the building where one of the earliest mass school shootings rocked the national conscience nearly a quarter century ago.
“The Columbine survivors actually were freshmen at the school when the shooting happened, which was weirdly my exact age at that time too, and they have taken on the task of teaching at the high school,” Rambo said. “It was a powerful and humbling experience to meet them.”
When the 13-year veteran science teacher first heard about the horrific shooting in Uvalde, she and others in the community were thrust back into raw grief, which soon turned to anger at inaction that has allowed school shootings and mass murder to become routine in the U.S.
“It galvanized me in a way,” she said. “Before Uvalde I couldn’t understand how the Parkland kids had the capacity to work outside of just surviving every day. Then Uvalde happened, and I was so angry. I understood that I had to do something to stop this from happening again, even if I don’t think I have the emotional energy. I do have the energy—I don’t have a choice.”
Last weekend’s marches came amid U.S. Senate negotiations which produced a bipartisan federal deal that includes enhanced background checks for gun purchasers younger than 21, a prohibition on gun ownership for domestic abusers, tightening of gun sales regulations, and mental health resources for schools.
Although the bills have not been written, the package has the potential to receive the 60 votes needed to pass the divided chamber, which would be the most significant movement on gun violence in a generation.
“It’s not enough, but in a time where we’re begging them to do something – anything is better than nothing,” Rambo said.
In Michigan, numerous gun safety measures have been proposed, but Republican leaders in the GOP-controlled state House and Senate have refused to take them up. That means advocates need to push harder, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told the crowd of 300 assembled before the Capitol steps in Lansing.
“Don’t look away!” she shouted. “It is a long, grueling fight, and it can feel disheartening at times, but know this: the people who would rather do nothing – who would perpetuate the horrific status quo – they’re counting on us to be cynical. They’re counting on us to be exhausted. They’re counting on us to look away and not stay in this fight.
“We won’t look away, and we won’t give up!”
The majority of people in Michigan and across the country support sensible gun regulations to save lives, said Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth), who spoke as a former teacher and local union leader in Airport schools in Monroe County before winning a legislative seat in 2018.
“My state rep… believed that more guns in schools was the solution to preventing school shootings,” Koleszar said. “He claimed teachers were begging him to be armed. So you know what I did? I said enough is enough! I ran against him, and I beat him! You know why I beat him? Because more people believe in these common-sense measures.”
Rep. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) also decried the lack of action that has allowed the carnage in schools to continue for the past 20 years since she was a teenager in high school and Columbine happened. It’s time for change, she said.
“Decade after decade, we have cowardly elected officials who are not showing up for us,” she told the crowd. “My message today is very clear: If you do not see policymakers at events like this, if you look at their voting records and they are not on the right side of history, if the payments they are receiving from the gun lobby mean more than the lives of children on this stage, vote them out!”
Neelu Jaberi, co-chapter leader of March for Our Lives Lansing, echoed those thoughts. She was seven years old when a gunman with a high-capacity assault rifle slaughtered 28 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
“Now I stand here at 17 seeing a new generation of children dealing with the impacts of gun violence,” she said in her moving speech – just one of several by student organizers of the march. “Four years ago we marched in response to Parkland. Now here we are again, marching in response to Uvalde and the countless mass shootings that have happened since then.
“My question is how many more until our politicians do something? Why is it so hard to listen to us and to fight for our lives?… We are being failed, and as we have been saying for far too long – and will continue saying – enough is enough.
“We as youth are tired: tired of being afraid, tired of lock down drills being second nature to us, tired of feeling so helpless, and tired of thinking our school could be next.
“We want change, we demand change, and we will continue to speak, to march, to use our voices until change happens.”