Beyond Guns: Student Testimony on School Safety, Climate, and Culture for the Federal School Safety Commission
Good afternoon. My name is Nasim Mohammadzadeh, and I am a rising junior at Paul Laurence Dunbar high school. With me is Emanuelle Sippy who is a rising sophomore at Henry Clay High School. We are here today as leaders of the Student Voice Team. We represent approximately 120 middle, high school and college students across Kentucky who work to be partners in improving our public schools.
For many Kentucky high school students growing up with the memories of Heath, Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook, recent events have made it feel as though our schools are under siege.
This was true even before the recent school shootings took the lives of two students at Marshall County High School in Benton and 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Several months prior to these tragedies, the Student Voice Team conducted a school-climate survey of 1,552 students at three geographically diverse Kentucky high schools. Of the students responding, 47 percent reported that they worry about violence at their school and 19 percent said that they do so frequently. These numbers dovetail with the Centers for Disease Control survey showing that over 20 percent of high-school students report having been bullied on school property and nearly 8 percent report having been in a physical fight there.
Since the Benton and Parkland shootings, many of us have been on edge with real gun confiscations, social-media scares and precautionary lock-downs, even though our own schools may have been spared from shootings. Therefore, the conversation we are having about how to make students feel safer must include–but also get beyond–guns.
We need to talk about school climate and the relationships students have to each other and to adults in school as well as the norms, goals, values that make a place where students from a range of backgrounds can love learning and feel safe, welcome and loved.
Fortunately, young people are ready to help lead the charge. Policymakers would be wise to heed our interest and energy and enlist us as full partners in finding solutions.
And we Kentucky students bring some definitive proof to the table.
In March, our Team organized a school climate and safety Teach-In and Rally, at the Kentucky State Capitol. The events were designed to build capacity in other youth organizers to understand some of the complexities around ensuring safer schools, and we were met with an energized response.
Approximately 150 participants from across the state and from a wide range of backgrounds joined us for our intergenerational Teach-In and articulated a range of ideas for ensuring a school climate that is not only physically safer but also more inclusive, more engaging, and more conducive to learning at high levels more broadly. Among some of the solutions proposed were:
Supporting students and teachers to improve their social and emotional capacities;
Offering more and better resources for those coping with mental health challenges; and,
Creating an environment that values collaboration at least as much as competition.
There was talk too of whether metal detectors should be deployed daily on all students or only in emergencies. Do locked doors make students feel safer or serve as a constant reminder of danger? Should teachers be armed?
These are also some of the same debates we’ve seen play out in the news media—all too often expressed with the type of anger and vitriol that only fuel further fear and hostility. That is why you might be surprised to know—and take comfort in knowing—that though many of us didn’t agree with each other, the students who gathered that day in Frankfort engaged in civil discourse. There was no contempt or raised voices; rather, students–those with the most to lose and gain in the national conversation about school safety—led the type of public policy dialogue we all should be having.
The Teach-In was followed by a rally on the capitol steps, where we heard from students like Jack Bradley, a junior at Craft Academy in Morehead who has autism. Jack implored people to consider that the root of the problem in Parkland was not so much the mental state of the shooter as his inappropriate access to weapons.
“Mental illness is just that—an illness, and the unspeakable rampage at Parkland was not simply the act of a mentally ill person,” he said. “It was the act of a mentally ill person who had access to weapons. The reality is that people like me are way more likely to be the victim of crimes than the perpetrator.”
We also heard from Will Powers, a sophomore from Somerset who lamented growing up in a family and community that treasure guns just as the headlines about school violence prompted him to question their value.
“I shot my first gun when I was eight. A .22 caliber hunting rifle,” he said. “As I lifted it and made my first shot right into a Pepsi can, I was joyous. In my innocent mind I was holding a toy only used to harm Pepsi cans and deer, not a weapon that tears families, communities, and countries apart, not something capable of taking lives of kids my age.”
And we heard too from Don Trowell, a senior from Louisville, who experienced a shooting in his school during his freshman year and others in his neighborhood. Don told the crowd that even though one of his best friends thought adding metal detectors to his school entrance was a terrible idea because it would make school feel like a prison, and even though he disagreed, he understood where his friend was coming from.
“Students who come from more privilege see the system as more responsive to them. They are more trusting,” Don explained. “They have more of a sense of security.”
The point in sharing these voices is to underscore that when it comes to perspectives on issues like school safety, students—even high school students, and even high school students from Kentucky—are not a monolithic mass. Yet, there is a common interest and a real energy among many of us to work as full partners with adults in making our schools not only safer but better all around.
If you take away nothing else from our presence here today, please remember as you continue to make your way across the country, that students can—and many of us yearn to be—partners in finding solutions to the challenges of school safety and other ones that keep our schools from being the best they can possibly be. After all, we young people are not just the future, but we are also very much a part of the present.
The Kentucky Student Voice Team is a statewide organization of young people who are co-creating more just, democratic Kentucky schools & communities as research, policy & advocacy partners. From 2012 to 2021, KSVT was incubated at the Prichard Committee, a nonpartisan, citizen-led organization working to improve education in Kentucky for all ages.
This testimony was written collectively by members of the Student Voice Team and presented to the Federal School Safety Commission during their hearing in Lexington. Nasim Mohammadzadeh, a rising junior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, and Emanuelle Sippy, a rising sophomore at Henry Clay High School, delivered the testimony.