'This Has to End.' March for Our Lives State College Rallies Against Gun Violence
Like her peers and every student younger than her, Kayla Fatemi was born into a post-Columbine world where school shootings in the United States have become an all-too-frequent occurrence. And she has had enough.
"As Generation Z, our lives are being threatened and we’re the ones who are losing our lives. Our peers are dying in schools," Fatemi said. "That shouldn’t be going on anymore. It’s 2018. This has to end. It’s been going on for more than 18 years, but it’s been going on at this rate for 18 years. As someone who is 18-years-old I’m sick of it. I’m tired of it and I want to do something about it."
The State College Area High School senior is one of several students who organized Saturday's March for Our Lives State College, one of thousands of sister marches held across the country in conjunction with the national event in Washington, D.C.. The national march was organized by students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., who started a nationwide movement after 17 people were killed in a February shooting at their school.
As with the national march, the local event rallied against gun violence, advocated for stricter gun control and encouraged eligible students to vote.
Fatemi and other State High students have been leading the conversation locally, organizing the march, a memorial on the national school walkout day on March 14 and future events.
"We want to make it known we are not going to ignore the problem and we are going to vote as soon as we’re eligible," said senior Bronte Clingham-David, another organizer of the march. "We’re going to take back our government."
Both Fatemi and Clingham-David said the nation needs stricter gun laws and that there are a number of ways to start addressing the issue. Fatemi points to Japan where extensive regulation and requirements have nearly eradicated gun crime.
"Weapons of war shouldn’t be sold at all and bump stocks need to be banned," Fatemi said. "There are a million different things we can do. We can look at all these different countries that have done these things and have had success."
Clingham-David said there especially needs to be stricter laws for what are often referred to as assault rifles.
"We don’t want anymore innocent people who are just living their day-to-day lives and going to school to be killed," Clingham-David said.
The State College march started off outside the high school with a rally then processed into town, ending in front of Old Main on the Penn State campus where hundreds of students and community members heard from speakers.
State Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Rush Township, encouraged students to keep up their efforts after Saturday.
"Change is coming," he said. "They think you're just going to go away. You will make a change. Keep fighting."
"There's a lot of hard work that needs to be put in," said Seun Babalola, a member of the Penn State Black Student Union. "Don't stop after today."
Parent and State College Area School Board President Amber Concepcion said gun violence in America necessitates a public health approach. She noted that on a national level, in the aftermath of Parkland, mental health and medical professionals and educators have endorsed the approach, with an emphasis on school climate, trusting and supportive relationships among students and adults and preventing access to the most deadly weapons.
"A public health approach focuses on prevention, on understanding and addressing risk factors and on ensuring the public has accurate information on practices that can save lives," she said. "Lawmakers also must have access to accurate information and then use it to develop evidence-based policies."
Concepcion also applauded students for leading the initiative and said students have a history of effecting change.
"For the students who are here today, your voices are valuable and important," she said. "Your voices are already making a difference in important ways."
State College Borough Council member Jesse Barlow called the students his "heroes," and said what they are fighting for is freedom.
"Today’s march is about freedom from fear," he said. "You have a right to be safe in your school. … You have a right to be safe in our public places. To ensure our freedom from fear, it is our elected officials' responsibility to invoke sensible laws to keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of dangerous people.
"People talk about gun rights... there is no right that involves taking rights from other people."
The march encouraged young people who are eligible to vote and for those who aren't to remain committed to doing so in the future. That is important for making lasting change, said Laura Shadle, president of Centre County Young Democrats.
"A lot of times when we have a problem like this on any issue, when we come out and have a public demonstration there’s always criticism," Shadle said. "‘Oh, you’re coming out for a little rally. Well what are you going to do about it?’ Vote. It’s not the only solution to any problem, but it’s a big one."
Shadle said she is impressed by the State High students' work in organizing the march and by their generation's efforts to hold politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, accountable.
"I think Millennials helped get the ball rolling but Gen Z is going to take it from here," Shadle said.
Fatemi believes youth turnout will be high for this year's elections.
"I want to see the youth turnout become the largest in any election ever," she said. "I want to see it skyrocket and us to be out there more than anyone expects. I think that’s how we’re going to make differences and I think that’s what’s going to happen."
Dean Phillips traveled from Montgomery County to State College for Saturday's march. A State College native, he was student government president at the high school in 1969 and in 1974 became the first, and to date only, Penn State undergraduate elected to borough council.
A retired attorney, Phillips said he considered going to the march in Washington, but wanted to be with the students in his hometown.
"I wanted to be with these young people who are so inspiring," he said. "I’m so proud of them that they’re stepping up on an issue that really affects everyone in the country. I never saw anything quite like this organized by high school kids. They really did a brilliant job. They’re as articulate as the students down at Parkland."
Phillips said he believes there is bipartisan support to address gun violence and that there are many people willing to set aside politics for the safety of children and everyone.
"We can’t stop everybody. We can’t take away all the guns," Phillips said. "But we certainly can do some damage control. For people to say because we can’t solve the whole problem we don’t do anything, that’s just shortsighted, irresponsible and, really at this point it’s immoral."
Locally, the State High students say their work is far from over and that they will continue advocating for safety and gun control.
On April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting, they are planning a school walkout.
Their memorial for the Parkland victims earlier this month was non-political and endorsed by school administrators. They don't expect that to be the case this time, aware that a public school can't support a political position, and they know that they may face in-school suspension for walking out.
"This next event is going to be very political. We’re going to have signs and we’re going to be chanting and screaming," Fatemi said. "It’s going to be noisy and it’s going to be an act of civil disobedience, so the school can’t sponsor it."
"I know there are a lot of students who don’t care if there are consequences with the school," Clingham-David added. "They’re still going to walk out of school and show their support. We want to show our school and our town that we care about this and we’re not going to let it go."