Ever since the February mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., there’s been a greater push by students for stricter action on gun violence. On this week’s Friday Forum, we talk with several Rockford high school students who organized a community forum on the issue and what they plan to do next.
Rockford-area students, like many of their compatriots across the country, took part in the series of walkouts last month known as the “March For Our Lives.” Some of the walkouts had support from local residents and became full demonstrations, while other schools limited their discussion to indoor assemblies.
But many students didn’t want this to be a one-off event. Pranav Volety, a sophomore in the Auburn High School gifted program, didn’t want to “get used to” a routine of school shootings and gun violence after Parkland.
“To break away from repetition, I decided to actually do something now,” Volety said, “and I decided to put my voice out there.”
So he joined up with other concerned students from nearby high schools, including East, Guilford, and Lutheran. They decided to plan a community town hall meeting at East High School where students and the audience could ask questions about gun violence. Rachel Alvarado, a senior at East, says it started out low-key.
“I know I was personally asked by a friend if I could help out,” Alvarado said, “and then I just kind of spread out and asked everybody else I knew as well.”
The students began assembling a diverse panel of local figures to answer questions. They started with the Rockford Police Department. Lieut. Eric Bruno says he was invited to East High School previously for a senior’s capstone project.
“What was interesting was, the topic was teen dating violence,” Bruno said, “but, actually, when they started asking us questions, it ran the gamut of subjects.”
These included such issues as gun violence and the Black Lives Matter Movement. Seeing a greater chance for community outreach, Bruno and other Rockford police personnel, including the school resource officer, joined the discussion.
“I think that clearly they are very concerned about the gun violence that’s occurring not only across the country but in our city,” Bruno said, “and they want something done. They want to do something about it. I think it’s great.”
City officials were another component of the panel. These ranged from Aldermen Frank Beach and Karen Hoffman to Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara.
“What’s really wonderful is that they took the initiative to reach out to my office,” the mayor said, “so I was just really proud and honored to be a small piece of it.”
Finally, the students reached out to area politicians. One of those was State Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford.
“I was impressed with their motivation and their organization, so I just reached out and I had them come to the office,” Stadelman said, “and we just talked about the issues and they mentioned this forum was going to be taking place and invited me.”
He was joined by State Rep. Litesa Wallace, D-Rockford, as well as Congressional candidate Sara Dady and Illinois statehouse candidate Maurice West.
Volety says there could have been more. “It has been a big struggle because not many representatives actually came here,” he said. “But still at the same time, we all found common ground and have had a discussion, and that is always the first step in a democratic proceeding.”
The group had invited U.S. Reps. Cheri Bustos and Adam Kinzinger, and gubernatorial candidates Bruce Rauner and JB Pritzker. While they didn’t make a personal appearance, these politicians did forward statements for the students to read aloud.
The discussion touched on some ancillary issues like bias in policing and the limits of the second amendment. But Lutheran High School senior Megan Larson said the different voices allowed for a common discussion on how these groups contribute to school safety.
“We had a lawyer. We had police officers. We had law enforcement there,” Larson said, “and they pretty much did the same job but they handled it a different way, so of course they’re going to answer each question in a different manner.”
Stadelman says it also cleared up misconceptions about what’s contributing to the problem of gun violence.
“We hear so much of the narrative at the state level that, especially in the Chicago area, that illegal weapons are coming from out of state,” he said, “so to hear from Rockford police officers that what they’re finding are legal guns from this area was an interesting aspect to what they’re dealing with.”
Lieut. Bruno also said it was important for all parties -- including law enforcement -- to maintain an open line of communication.
“In some communities, the departments or law enforcement in general became separated from their communities for whatever reason, and there’s probably a million reasons,” Bruno acknowledged. “But I think, in order for it to get better, there has to be more community outreach and there has to be more accountability and a there has to be a lot more transparency, and that will build trust.”
Though the panel didn’t spur any immediate action, Mayor McNamara was impressed with what the students achieved.
“To think that these kids are in high school creating such a town hall, it’s something I never did when I was in high school,” he said. “So I’m in awe of the work that they’re doing, their advocacy, and their yearning to make sure that the community is more and more educated.”
Stadelman added that student activism on gun violence already is having an effect.
“In Illinois and other states as well, you’re seeing lawmakers taking votes that they may not have been taking a few weeks ago,” he said, “but because of their advocacy, because of their ability to try to persuade people, they’re having an impact in the political dialogue, and that’s pretty remarkable.
“So yeah, you need to vote, but you also need to advocate, you need to tell people how you feel; and I’m very impressed with how they’re doing that,” Stadelman said.
To ensure that first step, the League of Women Voters was on hand after the meeting to register students to vote.
But the activists aren’t resting on their laurels. East High School senior Alondra Lavariega says one part of their future activism is raising awareness at a local level.
“We have a shoe drive coming up where we are planning to spray-paint each shoe and do a little mini biography of local people that have died due to gun violence,” she said, “and I want to say that’s our next step. So if you’re around Rockford, definitely look for that white pair of shoes around that pole.”
Senior Megan Larson says the students also are working to expand their group.
“We would like to go statewide and possibly nationally,” she said, “and we would like to create a cohesive group of many, many individuals, no matter the age, no matter the experience, no matter the profession. We need to make our voices heard.”
Lieut. Bruno says law enforcement and government can facilitate action on gun violence; but, ultimately, the impetus will come from the students themselves.
“I’m encouraged by, number one, the way they articulate the issue, the way they want to see change. And that just, for me, is encouraging,” Bruno said. “That’s where it’s going to come. It’s going to come from them because ultimately, they’re our future leaders.”