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Director in town hall targeting school violence: ‘Arm us with resources, not guns’

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — As survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., called for town hall meetings throughout the country Saturday, high school students of Monongalia County joined the movement.

About 20 people of all ages attended the event at Morgantown Church of the Brethren to voice their concerns on gun reform. Panelists included current students, educators and law enforcement. Congressman David McKinley was invited to the event but did not attend.

Morgantown High School sophomore Rebecca Brazaitis organized the meeting, with help from fellow students and the church, in response to her own fears after February’s deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

“I felt very safe before the shooting in Parkland, but after the shooting in Parkland I definitely didn’t,” Brazaitis said. “I remember sitting in class. It was very quiet in the room, and we heard a loud bang. Immediately I thought, ‘Oh, it’s a gun.'”

Brazaitis said she hates that the first thought is a shooting, rather than simply a book falling or something far less life threatening occurring in the hallway.

“It’s not OK for students to go into school thinking, ‘Maybe I could be shot today,'” she said.

During the town hall meeting, attendees were asked to hold up green cards for issues or solutions they agree with or red cards for those they did not. Many of those in attendance agreed upon banning semi-automatic weapons and having stricter background checks for purchasing guns.

“That’s the ultimate goal,” Brazaitis said. “As long as we can control the access of guns in our country and that we can make it harder for people to acquire guns, I think that would be great.”

Emma Gray, a panelist and a student at Morgantown High School, said many student groups have met to come up with implementations that could help them feel safer in schools. Possibilities discussed included clear backpacks, metal detectors, increased numbers of resource officers and strengthening security of entryways into the schools.

Gray said those ideas are now being discussed by the Monongalia County Board of Education.

“It’s nice to know, as a student, that our opinions and what we believe is being considered,” she said. “It’s not just a conversation that’s completely out of our hands because it does affect us as well.”

One attendee asked the panelists their opinions on arming teachers, to which Monongalia County Schools Extended Day director Julia Hamilton said, “Arm us with resources, not guns.”

Hamilton was in elementary school when 15 students died in a shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. Despite growing up in that aftermath, students were not instilled with fear nor were changes made in school protocol.

“Because I think at the time we thought that it was kind of an anomaly,” she said. “Not something that was going to become so normalized that a notification pops up on your phone, and as long as it’s not close to you or as long as the death toll isn’t extreme, it’s kind of just another shooting. So things have changed a lot in 20 years.”

Hamilton was one of many who believed that protocols such as metal detectors and increased officers in schools aren’t enough to tackle the issue of gun violence and that legislation must occur.

“I think that they (the school systems) do the best they can to try to provide security to students,” she said. “But my personal concern is that with each passing year our schools become more like prisons, and for too many of our kids, school is the only place that they feel safe.”

Saturday’s town hall was not the first event these students have organized in response to gun violence. In March, hundreds participated in March for Our Lives, walking from the WVU Coliseum to Suncrest Elementary School.

“The issue of gun violence has reached so many individuals. We had a march in Morgantown, and we expected maybe 10 people to show up. There were about 400. It’s connected to a lot of people. So many people are involved. We need to make change.”

Brazaitis contends these events are only the beginning of changing opinions nationwide.

“It’s so great that so many people have come and that they care about the issues that we’re discussing today,” she said.

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