Chilly winds and winter-like temperatures didn’t deter approximately 600 students from participating in a demonstration in front of Washington High School (Jefferson County, WV) on March 14, one month after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, which claimed 17 lives.
“This isn’t a partisan effort about guns,” said Riley Ward, a senior at WHS who was one of the co-organizers for the event. “This is about the safety of our school.”
Ward, along with Ciera Hansborough and Cara Klimes, spoke with The Observer shortly before the demonstration took place. All were wearing orange t-shirts, a color worn by students and staff members at the school to show solidarity with the effort.
Klimes argued the effort was a demonstration for students “… standing up for what they believe in.” Hansborough stressed that the WHS activity was a “grassroots” event that came about organically from the students, with Ward articulating it as “our movement—student driven.”
Joining countless other similar events across the region, state, and country, the demonstration lasted 17 minutes—one minute for each life lost at Marjory Stoneman Douglas—and featured a moment of silence, prepared remarks by students, and a mass showing of solidarity for students nationwide who are seeking safer schools.
Aaron Hackett, a 2015 graduate of WHS and candidate for the Jefferson County Board of Education, called the demonstration “inspiring,” and appreciated the ability of “young people to stage a demonstration on such a large scale.”
WHS was joined in the effort by Jefferson High School, Charles Town Middle School, and Harpers Ferry Middle School, according to Jefferson County Sheriff Pete Dougherty.
WHS principal Judy Marcus was approached by a few students, both individually and as a small group, shortly before the statewide teacher work stoppage. Plans were put on hold during the time out of school, but upon their return, the students circulated an anonymous survey asking students if they would wear orange on March 14 and participate in a rally in front of the school. Of the approximately 1,260 students, around half said they were interested in taking part. Around 70 staff members (of roughly 90) also expressed their willingness to participate with students.
Ward, Klimes, and Hansborough were joined in their organizational efforts by a number of other seniors, and freshman Brogen Dozier. Dozier was the only non-senior involved in setting up the rally.
Jefferson County wasn’t the only school system to have students following in the nationwide “March for Our Lives” movement, an effort spearheaded by students from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School.
Erin Munley, who teaches English at the high school level in Berkeley County, said a number of her students have discussed the increase in school shootings and the larger March for Our Lives efforts.
“It’s something that is a major part of our culture at this point, unfortunately, so it’s hard not to discuss it when it happens,” she said, adding that students at her school staged a march around the inside of the building prior to the statewide teacher work stoppage.
Violet Hott, a senior at Berkeley Springs High School (BSHS) in Morgan County, organized students at her school to attend the national March for Our Lives, which was held on March 24, in Washington, D.C. “I cannot be more inspired by my generation after learning of the courageous and strong efforts the March for Our Lives group has worked tirelessly on,” she emphasized. “I began to follow every one of these young heroes on social media, hoping to hear more about their efforts in gun reform.”
Local Threats Occurring, But Preparedness Always Front and Center
Even though local counties have remained largely untouched by gun violence incidents in their school systems, there hasn’t been a lack of threats or preparations made should an attack occur. Over the weekend of February 17, threats were made to Washington High School, Berkeley Springs High School, and two schools in Fayette County, WV.
Superintendent of Jefferson County Schools Bondy Shay Gibson said an “extensive investigation” was launched in which the Charles Town Police Department and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department partnered and were able to “identify the originator of the threat and determine that it was falsely instigated.”
Ward, Klimes, and Hansborough, were pleased with the response. “People feel safe at Washington,” said Ward. “The community responded right away,” added Hansborough, with Klimes saying everyone she spoke with after the threat “felt safe.”
Hott, from BSHS, echoed the remarks from WHS about a community feeling at her school, but indicated she was unsettled the day the threat was received at her school.
“I awakened to messages from friends, asking me to stay home and to spread the word,” she said. And she did. “Tensions remained high the next school day,” she admitted, “with a teacher even politely stating that he would be locking the door and we were safe with him.”
According to a news release from Morgan County Sheriff K.C. Bohrer, once the threat was received, his agency, along with the FBI, investigated and found no implements that could be used to carry out the threat made by an 18-year-old, male senior at BSHS. Charges were filed against him.
To that end, Jefferson County’s Dougherty specified that every threat made in the county is taken seriously. “There have been dozens of complaints—from bomb threats to threats of weapons, injury, and fights. There have been a few cases where weapons, including knives, have been in schools. These have been addressed without injury or further law enforcement actions.”
He added, “Keep in mind, the number of calls to schools is very modest” when compared to the “… thousands of similar complaints outside of schools.”
Gibson echoed Dougherty. “All threats are taken seriously and investigated in conjunction with the law enforcement agency of jurisdiction. When false threats are determined, we cooperate with law enforcement to hold individuals accountable for actions which spread fear and result in lost instructional time for schools and use precious resources from law enforcement to investigate.”
She also pointed out that, “During the recent work stoppage, local law enforcement used the opportunity of unoccupied schools to train for responses to various scenarios in our schools.”
National Trends Show Uptick in Gun Violence in Schools
Since the beginning of 2018, there have already been 14 school shootings (CNN). With approximately 1.5 incidents of gun violence in schools per week nationally, West Virginia has been very lucky to have remained relatively unscathed.
The Los Angeles Times has curated a graphic map pinning every incident involving a shooting on a school campus since 20 children and six adults were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut on December of 2012. The number of incidents totaled 290 as of February 15.
West Virginia has escaped serious incident while other states with a similar set of socio-economic challenges, poverty, high unemployment, and rampant substance abuse and addiction problems have not. The only reported shooting in West Virginia since the map was established took place on April 29, 2016, at the University of Charleston. A firearm was discharged but no injuries or deaths occurred. Ohio has experienced 11 shootings, one of which involved fatalities, and seven involving injuries. Alabama has suffered 9 incidents, South Carolina 10, and Pennsylvania 7.
While opinions are very strong in West Virginia surrounding gun ownership, the threat of violence on school campuses is constantly at the forefront of the minds of students, teachers, administrators, and law enforcement. Yet, all of the preparedness measures in the world can’t eliminate the history of what has already happened across the country. Students attend school on a daily basis with the specter of potential violence hanging heavily over their lives, as summed up by Violet Hott of BSHS.
“It can be hard to imagine these very real-life, horrific events after growing up in a town where the most exciting news is a football victory or a classic Apple Butter Festival Turtle Race, but I believe that on that day [Parkland], peers and community members were wide-eyed and shaky at the harsh reality of gun violence in America. I will remain on edge until legislation is passed to ensure students’ safety.”By H.S. Leigh Koonce