Montana Voices: ‘What if?’ becomes ‘When?’

Students’ notes about gun violence were taped to the walls of the old gym at Great Falls High School on Wednesday. (Mary Sheehy Moe)

A hush fell over the halls of Great Falls High School at 10 a.m. Wednesday, and in a high school teeming with over 1,000 adolescents, any hush is eerie. Over the loudspeaker the student body president announced that a moment of silence would be observed in memory of the slain students in Parkland and asked those students who wished to walk out of their classrooms and into the gym to observe it too.

Mary Sheehy Moe

The Great Falls school district took a different approach to the “walkouts” predicted nationwide in response to the ongoing tragedy of school shootings, most recently played out in Parkdale, Florida. Teachers and administrators didn’t feel they could ensure the safety of students who left their buildings and campuses. Students didn’t feel that their individual messages would be heard in a crowd of shouting student voices.

So both sides worked together to meet each others’ interests. At Great Falls High, the administration agreed to provide a place for students who wished to express their opinions about school shootings — the historic old gym, golden with age, redolent of the generations of students who had come of age in this very same place. Student leaders would set staff tables where students could sit and write letters to their elected officials, explaining why they had walked out and what they would like those officials to do.

The planners at Great Falls High had thought that half the gym would suffice to handle the protesters and 20 minutes would be long enough for the messages to be completed. They were wrong on both counts. More students walked than anyone had expected. The stairwells and hallway outside the old gym were clogged with throngs of silent students, patiently waiting their turn to enter, sit at one of the tables, and pen their messages.

Because of the crowd, it took a bit longer to complete the exercise than the student government leaders had anticipated. But not much longer. After 30 minutes, the gym was empty again, except for the student volunteers quietly taping the messages to the wall of bleachers on the north side of the gym. There were nearly 200 messages, by my estimation, and they expressed the full range of views on the gun violence that has become all too common in America’s schools. A sampling:

♦ “I am walking out because I know what it is like to lose a loved one. I also believe we have a chance to end this horror. I pray for everyone who has been affected by school shootings. [I suggest] metal detectors [at school] and more SRO enforcement.”

♦ “As a student, I shouldn’t have to see fellow kids my own age dying. Thousands of futures lost. At this point, thoughts & prayers aren’t enough. We NEED policies and change. My teachers should not have to do the job in protecting us for the government. Education in any way, shape, or form should not be inhibited by violence. Let Parkland be the last school shooting, let’s make change.”

♦ “No one should be scared to go to school, especially my younger siblings in elementary schools. By us walking out, I hope this aid[s] those who do not know how to speak out and stop this violence.”

♦ “[T]here are not enough armed faculty at any of the [G]reat [F]alls school[s] to take care of more than one threat at a time. There should always be enough armed faculty to deal with any threat that pops up whether it be minor or major.”

♦ “I want to feel safe going to school every day. I don’t want my generation and those after me to fear the learning environment. I hate that thousands of innocent young people are killed. [I suggest that we] make military-grade weapons and machine guns unavailable to common citizens. [We also need] more/stricter process to get guns; ex., mental health evaluations, disability considerations.”

♦ “It could’ve been me or my brothers or my friends, it could’ve been anyone in my Bison family. I love my MSDB [Montana School for the Deaf and Blind] and Bison families. I couldn’t handle it if anything happened to them. [We need] age limits, background checks, not building mostly of glass.”

♦ “Guns are not the problem, crazy people are. They should not be able to purchase a gun. [We should] have all the doors locked so no one bad can get in and when it’s lunch time you should have to get a visitors pass and write your name on a piece of paper.”

♦ “7000+ lives lost since Sandy Hook are not enough for us to start taking accountability and making a change. Precious lives are lost, students live in fear of going to school. When will we start to change this destructive behavior? Students shouldn’t live in fear. Take away the fear, take action against violence. Stop arguing and risking our lives.”

♦ “I understand what it is like to live in fear for your life. My father is and was a cruel man. School was my only escape most days. It was a place to feel safe. This isn’t anti-gun, this is pro-safety. This is about taking care of children and young adults …. [We need to] encourage parents to talk to their kids about guns. They are dangerous and they are not a toy. They should teach their children about respect. We need to erase the stigma about guns and mental health.”

♦ “I am not only walking out but walking UP! I walked out because people lose their lives every year because of gun violence in a place they thought they were safe: school. Improvements are made every year and continue to improve on guns and gun safety. Walking out today made me realize I want to walk up. Walk up to the student sitting alone, walk up to the person needing help, and walk up to the person who is difficult.”

I was invited to observe the walk-out today when I expressed my concern that the student voice was being suppressed, that students would be less likely to speak out in the presence of teachers and administrators and in the hallowed halls of their high school. I understood the concern for the students’ safety, but I was just as concerned that we show we want to hear what students have to say. As an elected official, I felt a special obligation in that regard.

I left the occasion impressed by how much these students were able to communicate in that format … and how little. Their messages are as individualized and unique as each of them is, something that wouldn’t be captured in a march with its chants and signs. But like the rest of us, even for students it’s easier to talk to the wall on this subject, to vent, rather than come to an understanding.

Unlike the rest of us, students have a special claim on our attention. They alone know this fear. They’ve been raised on it and trained for it throughout their school days. It is all they have ever known. It isn’t the same as the old “duck and cover” days septuagenarians remember. Yes, that must have been traumatic, imagining that the Russians could drop a nuke any day. But today’s students don’t have to imagine. School shootings in today’s America happen every week ( ) The question in today’s kids’ heads isn’t “What if?” It’s “When?” And they are — rightfully, logically — afraid.

Great Falls High School kept them safe on Wednesday and gave them what I concluded was a powerful venue to express what they feel and believe. Now it will be up to the rest of us to listen, to come to a reasonable agreement, and to act.

Wish us luck, kids. And a scintilla of your idealism.

Mary Sheehy Moe has served Great Falls as a school board trustee and state senator. She is now a city commissioner.