Teens lead forum on school safety at Westmoreland college
Two months after a Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that touched off a national discussion about school safety and gun control, students from across Allegheny and Westmoreland Counties are confident that local efforts to influence these issues are maintaining energy.
“It's our generation's movement, this is us,” said Bella Giunta, a junior at Gateway High School and one of seven students to participate in a panel discussion about school safety hosted by Trib Total Media and the Tribune-Review on Monday at Westmoreland County Community College in Youngwood.
Students from Greensburg Salem, Mt. Pleasant Area, Shady Side Academy, Southmoreland and Woodland Hills high schools also participated in the panel.
The discussion was the second such event bringing together students involved in local efforts — planning walkouts, organizing marches, launching letter-writing campaigns or visits to lawmakers' offices — to rally communities around the issues.
The first was held at the Penn State New Kensington campus in March. Luis Fábregas, editor of Trib Total Media's Valley News Dispatch and Pittsburgh online editions, moderated both panels.
Alexis Davis, a junior at Woodland Hills High School, said that her classmates are leveraging the national movement to address local issues.
“In the Woodland Hills area, we aren't as concerned about a school or mass shooting as much as we are concerned about our own community, so we have had a lot of localized gun violence,” said Davis, who is a member of the group Woodland Hills Students Against Gun Violence.
The district has lost three students — ages 7, 14 and 16 — to gun violence this school year.
“This is just too personal to our students for us to just let this movement die down,” Davis said.
Emma Skidmore, a junior at Greensburg Salem, also emphasized the need for a focus on local efforts.
“I appreciate that lawmakers are trying to take some steps to reduce gun violence,” Skidmore said. “But as we know things in government work pretty slowly. So I think it really starts in your hometown, with what you can do.”
Skidmore is a student leader with the progressive organization Voice of Westmoreland and helped to organize the Greensburg March for Our Lives rally in support of gun control in March.
Panelists weighed in on a range of issues connected to school safety, including gun control, security measures and mental health.
The students were united in their opposition to arming teachers, an option put forth by Senate Bill 383, introduced by Sen. Don White, R-Indiana. The bill is pending in the House Education Committee.
“I don't agree with arming teachers,” said Julia Dengler, a senior at Mt. Pleasant Area. “I don't think the answer to weapons is more weapons. That's just creating more problems than there needs to be.”
Her classmate, Mount Pleasant Area senior Nick Secosky, shared a different perspective.
“I don't necessarily agree with arming teachers,” Secosky said. “But I do want to say: What is the first thing you do when there's an active shooter in your school? Who do you call? You call people with guns. So I do agree with armed security guards, we have a few at our school, but I feel like we need to hire more.”
Others, like Giunta of Gateway, were skeptical about the idea of armed security, noting that active shooter situations can be unpredictable and hectic.
“And if it's in a crowded lunch room, with over 50 to 100 kids and you hear gunshots, what do we expect an armed police officer to do? Just shoot in the air?” Giunta said.
Students also said they want to see more mental health options for young people.
“Really listening to the kids is the key to all of this,” Davis of Woodland Hills said. “We need more resources for the mental health of our children, so that we can, instead of putting a band-aid on the situation, get to what the root of the cause of the situation is.”
Erin Simard, a junior at Shady Side Academy who co-organized the Pittsburgh March for Our Lives event, also wants to see a different approach to mental health for young people.
“I think it's very, very important that we shift the national focus not just to mass shootings, but to mental health in regards to how to help people who want to harm themselves with guns, not just other people,” she said.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, 724-850-2867 or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.