Local Students Protest Gun Violence



Students line the Cross Street Bridge in downtown Middlebury during a walkout against gun violence.


MIDDLEBURY — Last Wednesday morning in New York City, students laid down in the streets. In Washington, D.C., they congregated on Capitol Hill. In Middlebury, high schoolers from Middlebury Union High School (MUHS) braved the snow on the Cross Street Bridge to protest gun violence alongside thousands of their peers from across the country. The MUHS students, joined on the bridge by teachers, community members,  faculty and students from the college, stood in silence for 17 minutes to honor the 17 people who were murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) High School in Parkland, Fl. last month.

The organizers of the event, which took place on March 14, sought to both commemorate the lives lost in Parkland and demand stricter gun control laws from state and national legislators. Theo Wells-Spackman, a sophomore at MUHS, spoke to the dual nature of the protest at the event.

“Those 17 minutes of silence were to remember the lives lost in Parkland, and to all the families who lost students there, our hearts are with you,” he said into a megaphone. “But we’re also here to demand change. Something has to happen in government. What is there right now is not enough.”

While high schoolers elsewhere walked out of their classes to protest gun violence, students at MUHS woke up Wednesday morning to a snow day. Although the weather made it difficult for some students to attend the event, both sides of the bridge were almost completely covered with protesters by 10 a.m. Many carried signs and chanted slogans such as “We want change” and “No more silence, end gun violence.”

Although there was no physical walkout at the March 14 protest, over 100 student demonstrators, determined to practice their acts of civil disobedience, stepped out of their classes and observed 17 minutes of silence the following Monday, March 19. After the moments of silence, 17 students read short bios for each of the victims.

“Just getting up and leaving class is typically something we would never do, at least I would never do, and it just shows how serious I am about it” said MUHS junior Marina Herren-Lage, who helped organize the protest. “I think to a lot of the teachers at our school recognize that the students who are participating in this are typically very good students, so if we’re leaving and we’re showing them that this matters enough to us, than I think that will just get our message across in a more powerful way.”

The protests in Middlebury and around the U.S. were organized in response to the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland, in which a former student shot and killed 14 students and three staff members and injured 17 others using an AR-15 style rifle. This type of rifle has been used in five of the six deadliest mass shootings of the past six years.

In the wake of the shooting, around 20 students from MSD, the Florida high school, formed a gun control advocacy organization called Never Again MSD. The group has lobbied U.S. lawmakers to take tougher stances on gun control measures and has publicly criticized high-profile legislators, like Florida senator Marco Rubio, who have accepted donations from the National Rifle Association (NRA).

MUHS sophomore Sabina Ward, who helped plan the protest, said that she drew inspiration from the Parkland survivors.

“I think the fact that the Parkland students haven’t let people forget about them and are really really fighting and pushing has completely changed the game, because it’s obviously inspired students across the country and really taught us that we can use our voices and we can make change if we’re dedicated enough,” she said.

Ward also noted that she was influenced by the 2016 Pulse massacre in Orlando, in which a shooter opened fire in a gay nightclub and killed 49 people.

“I was in middle school when that happened and had just come out to my family and friends,” she said. “To have that happen just days after, that is the moment when I realized that I might not be safe being who I am as a person, and now I’m not safe being who I am as a student.”

On March 7, MUHS principal William D. Lawson emailed students expressing his support for the protests.

“I write to let you know that I share and support the goals of the many students and others who are voicing their urgent concern with school safety and the unfortunate incidents of gun-related violence that have plagued our schools across the country,” he wrote, adding that students would not face consequences for missing class for the walkout but would require parental permission for the march to the bridge.

“Immediately after the Florida school shooting, students in school were sharing/voicing their anxiety around the issue of school violence and safety,” Lawson said in an interview with The Campus. “I felt that it was important for them to give voice to their concerns and to take some reasonable actions that might serve to improve the current conditions. Psychologists tell us that these actions will help students re-balance their anxiety by giving them a sense of control.”

Ward said that the email got mixed responses at MUHS.

“We were really hoping to make a statement with leaving class, without permission,” she said. “A lot of us thought sure, it would be nice to not get detention, but at the same time, the civil disobedience part of it has kind of been taken away from our hands.”

The email came nearly two weeks after Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe sent out a memorandum asking superintendents not to encourage protests that would disrupt classes or pose safety threats to students leaving school without permission. Lawson noted that he coordinated with local police officers to ensure students’ security for the protest in town.

The assemblage of college students and faculty that joined the high schoolers on the bridge was in part led by Julian Gerson ’18, co-founder and president of Middlebury Students Against Gun Violence (MSAGV). Gerson and Cooper Babbitt ’18.5 founded MSAGV after the Parkland shooting and have been holding weekly meetings since.

Gerson created a Facebook event to advertise the protest and was aided by the SGA, which sent out a school-wide email about the event the day prior. Gerson also gratefully noted that there was support for the protest from many professors, who permitted and encouraged their students to miss class to attend.

Gerson said it was important to him to show solidarity with the MUHS protestors.

“I think it takes a lot of bravery and a lot of vulnerability to be a 17 year old organizing this big thing and I just wanted to make sure they had people there, supporting them, and that they knew this was a cause that a lot of people had their backs on,” he said.

“It was so powerful to see all of the college students there,” said Herren-Lage. “It was really wonderful to be able to combine forces and do it as one group because I think that’s really the point of this movement.”

Going forward, MSAGV will focus its efforts mainly on carrying out on-campus advocacy work and influencing gun control legislation.

Despite the impressive turnout and support from the school, MUHS senior and protest organizer Andrea Boe noted that the event was not unanimously supported.

“We have a pretty split community where there are a lot of very liberal people, but there’s also a big enough community who are very protective of their gun rights and the second amendment,” she said. “So I think we definitely had a huge community that was for the protests but also a smaller and slightly quieter community that was not.”

Vermont has a complicated history with gun control. Although a blue state in many respects, it has some of the laxest gun laws in the country. The dangers of these weak laws became apparent when last month, just days after the Parkland shooting, officials from Rutland County thwarted the plans of an 18-year-old from Poultney, Vt. who intended to shoot up Fair Haven Union High School in Fair Haven, Vt. The boy was preparing to buy a 9 mm Glock and an AR-15, both which he would have legally been able to purchase. He had planned to carry out the shooting Mar. 14.

The obstructed Fair Haven shooting proved influential within Vermont politics. Vt. Governor Phil Scott, a Republican and once-fervent opponent to gun control laws, has begun pursuing limitations on gun ownership as a result.

“I have thought for quite some time that Vermont was immune to this type of thing,” Scott said in Montpelier the week after the shooting.

Herren-Lage, whose father worked at Fair Haven high school until this year, talked of a similar feeling of immunity.

“I have friends that have always said, ‘Oh, it will never happen to us,’ but we really can never say that,” she said. “It’s genuinely terrifying to walk into school everyday and see all my friends and not necessarily know if I’m going to see them again.”

Lawson echoed her sentiments. “I have to say that there is not a morning that I don’t get up thinking about the bad possibilities that could happen to my students, colleagues or frankly to myself,” he said.