by Dominique Morales and Marian Mohamed, GZR Newsroom
(This article is jointly published between Ground Zero Radio, an initiative of the Vera Project, and the South Seattle Emerald.)
Inside the heart of the Washington State Capitol building in Olympia, a sea of students in bright-orange shirts filled the Columbia Room. These students, representing different schools from all over Seattle, were getting ready to walk over to the steps of the Capitol to demand one thing: the end of gun violence in their communities.
Their Youth Lobby Day mobilization, on March 1, was part of Youth Day of Action, an event organized by the Seattle Student Union and the Alliance for Gun Responsibility to rally elected officials into passing three bills, each with its own specific provisions related to gun control or mental health.
These bills are HB 1143, HB 1180, and HB 1741. HB 1143 is concerned with requirements for the purchase or transfer of firearms, while HB 1180 seeks to establish firearms-related safety measures to increase public safety. On the mental health front, HB 1741 focuses on increasing prototypical school formulas to support student health, well-being, and educational outcomes.
A main component of Youth Day of Action was training students on bill development and advocacy so they could lobby in support of these bills. This idea was proposed by Team ENOUGH’s Robert Sentra, who has experience in lobbying at other statehouses across the nation.
Youth Day of Action arose from the question of how to make lobbying more accessible to young people, according to Chetan Soni, field organizer for Alliance for Gun Safety and executive director of the Seattle Student Union.
“I know that the lobbying process is sometimes really inaccessible to people,” says Soni, “so making sure that everyone could meet with their legislator or their legislator’s staff was really important.”
One of these legislators is Sen. Rebecca Saladaña, who represents the 37th Legislative District, which includes Beacon Hill, the Central District, Rainier Valley, Columbia City, Rainier Beach, and Renton. While Saldaña isn’t an author of any of the three bills the students came to lobby, she spoke passionately about prioritizing gun safety and the importance of youth activism and representation.
“Our young people: You have so much power, to have you talk to your adults about what’s important to you, about what you expect, and what you need to feel supported,” said Saldaña. “Adults will listen. I know that as a young person, I had a lot to say, and it did shape my adults around me. And especially when you come down to Olympia — it is very powerful for us to hear directly from you today.”
Students at Youth Day of Action heeded Saldaña’s advice and made their frustrations surrounding gun violence and mental health clear.
“I just want to be honest, and say: We shouldn’t even have to be here. … Sure, this is affecting us, but it’s not our job to come fight for this,” said Franklin High School sophomore Angela Calderon. “We’re literally children, we’re supposed to be in school, and it’s really not my problem, but guess what, I have to be here because no one else is fighting for us.”
Just five months before the Youth Day of Action took place, on Nov. 15, 2022, students from Seattle Public Schools gathered at Seattle City Hall to protest the institutional inaction around gun safety after the tragic death of 17-year-old Ingraham High School senior Ebenezer Haile that had taken place a week before. Students at Youth Day of Action spoke of how that recent incident not only affected students who attended Ingraham, but also surrounding schools and the greater community.
“There was a fear that day, not only for ourselves, as we’re merely 10 minutes from that school, but also for all of our friends and community members, those whom lots of students went to middle school with, who they were texting, on the phone with,” said Luna Crone-Barón, a sophomore at Nathan Hale High School.
Crone-Barón expressed the fear around not knowing what was going on that day, and the grief that followed the student’s death. The students at Nathan Hale also had to go into lockdown themselves.
“That is a kind of pain, a kind of grief that students should never have to live with, that young people should never have to live with,” said Crone-Barón.
GZR Newsroom reconnected with Manthita Wague, a senior at Ingraham High School, whom GZR previously interviewed at the Seattle City Hall gun violence protest. Some things have changed at Ingraham because of the students’ demands, according to Wague.
Since the protest, mental health specialists have arrived at Ingraham to evaluate students’ mental health, which Wague notes has been helpful. Material changes have included safety blinds in classrooms and an increase of security guards within the high school. Although these changes have helped Ingraham students, they haven’t solved the larger problem of gun violence, Wague says.
“Why is this still an issue?” asked Wague. “I feel like this has been happening for years and years, and we keep seeing the same outcome.”
On March 9, a little more than a week after Youth Day of Action, HB 1143, which requires a basic training safety course and a 10-day mandatory waiting period for all firearm purchases, successfully passed and is now headed to the State Senate. The bill was spearheaded by Rep. Liz Berry of the 36th Legislative District, where Ingraham High School resides. Berry reached out to Ingraham students to create a conversation about how to best meet their needs.
“The youth movement has always been very vibrant about this issue,” said Berry. “But since then, it has bubbled up even more because of a direct impact on our community, and that, I think, is very helpful. [It] will help us make the real changes that we need this year.”
In 2022, South Seattle’s Brighton and Dunlap neighborhoods were among those with the highest number of shootings and shots fired, according to a Seattle Police Department crime report. When asked how she’s worked with other districts that have been affected by high rates of shootings, Berry was quick to mention representatives from both the North End and South End being present at a House floor debate on assault weapons.
Berry refers to data from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence to back her reasoning for why HB 1143 will prevent these shootings from taking place in neighborhoods like Brighton and Dunlap, which have been disproportionately affected by gun violence.
“If folks do want to obtain a gun, and they do so lawfully and they pass background checks, they also need to understand how to safely handle that gun, how to safely store that gun, and how to keep that gun out of the hands of kids,” said Berry.
Marigold B. Wong, a junior at Franklin High School, believes the issue of gun violence doesn’t only reside in the buying and handling of a gun, and that prioritization of students’ mental health could possibly also have a hand in preventing shootings. She recalls a time last year when a student posted on social media a list of other students they planned to harm. She remembers that the stressful atmosphere not only affected the students, but also the teachers. Despite the active threat that loomed over Franklin High School, the administration never canceled school.
“It’s really stressful going into a school building every day trying to focus on pre-calculus when you know, in the back of your mind, what would happen right now if someone pulled out a gun or an active shooter came into the building,” Wong said.
Wong lists questions that would run through her mind, like what she would do or where she would go. Wong even admits that she’s never truly felt included in conversations or actions around gun safety within her school. She explains how the school sent out a survey that prompted students to offer ways Franklin can help students feel safe.
“I didn’t love that conversation. They were looking for us to give them a solution, and when solutions were given to teachers and the principal, they didn’t implement them,” said Wong.
Wong has taken the opportunity of Youth Lobby Day to advocate for mental health resources for students who’ve been affected by gun violence or for those who seek adequate and effective mental health counseling. According to data from the ACLU, only one mental health counselor works with 448 students in Washington State.
“It’s really hard for students who need support to even schedule a meeting with a therapist,” said Wong. “I find that, especially in South Seattle, a lot of students who need mental health support can’t afford it.”
The efforts by students like Calderon, Crone-Barón, Soni, Wague, and Wong at Olympia serve as a reminder of the severity of what young people face every day when they step into their schools, and a reminder that, as the students emphasize, it shouldn’t have taken the death of a student for years of unhealed trauma to finally be addressed by their legislators.
Dominique Morales, California born and raised, received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Graduating amid the COVID-19 pandemic, she continued her education pursuing her master’s in public policy, reigniting a lifelong passion for advocacy and speaking truth to power. She now resides in Seattle and uses her skill set to uplift and tell stories of all the rich and diverse communities of the city and its surrounding areas.
Marian Mohamed, a multimedia journalist and community engagement coordinator, uses her skills to aid underrepresented individuals and communities to tell their stories. She’s created stories of communities affected by COVID-19, food insecurities, gentrification, and media misrepresentation. In 2020, Marian won a Gracie Award for her feature story about the importance of political representation.
📸 Featured Image: On March 1, 2023, students from Seattle Public Schools traveled down to Olympia to lobby for three significant gun safety bills. Rep. Liz Berry (a Democrat who represents Washington’s 36th Legislative District) addresses the students directly as they sit on the steps of the Capitol. (Photo: GZR Photography)
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