Miami Middle School Students Hope Their Magazine Will Help End Gun Violence

Feb 14, 2020
Originally published on February 14, 2020 11:38 am

The morning after the Feb. 14, 2018, school shooting in Parkland, Fla., a middle school teacher in nearby Miami stood in front of his speech and debate class and had no idea what to say.

"It's a powerful thing when 13-year-olds and 14-year-olds are looking up to you for an answer to something that you don't have an answer for," said Kelsey Major, a teacher at Everglades K-8 Center, a public school about 50 miles south of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 people had been killed in the shooting.

"In speech and debate, I was speechless," he said.

What started as a loss for words later became a group civics project aimed at ending gun violence.

A club made up of about 40 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders is now working on its second edition of a magazine designed to persuade federal lawmakers to pass legislation that would help prevent mass shootings. They're pushing for a range of policy changes, including further limits on gun ownership, "red flag" laws to keep guns away from potentially dangerous people and greater investment in mental health care in schools.

The publication, called First Shot, features persuasive essays about gun reform policies, short biographies and drawings of victims, data analysis of mass shooting statistics and poetry. This year, the focus is on shootings in "safe and sacred places," such as schools and houses of worship.

The group is trying to raise money to print a copy of the magazine for every member of the U.S. House and Senate — all 535 of them.

The students are also planning a bus trip in March to deliver the magazines to the local offices of federal lawmakers who represent South Florida. The offices of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, and Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala, both Democrats, are on the students' itinerary, as are state legislators and school board members. The field trip is being funded with a $1,250 grant from The Education Fund, a nonprofit that supports public school teachers in Miami-Dade County.

"Our goal is for all of them to listen to us, the youths, because we are the future," said eighth-grader and club member Susana Martinez. "That's what legislators always say — that we are the future. But what about the now?"

Fellow eighth-grader Angelina Cotnam, who is one of the group's leaders, wrote a harrowing poem for the magazine that depicts a school shooting from the perspective of a student hiding in a classroom.

She described kids "crowd[ing] together like rats" in corners of classrooms during lockdown drills. She depicted students texting family or friends as they fear for their lives: In the corner, a light shines with a final goodbye.

Angelina said it's scary that adults seem to be helpless when it comes to mass shootings, unable to stop them.

"It's terrible to know every time we have an alarm or a drill — we don't know if it's a drill or not, it could be real — that it could be our last day seeing our friends and our parents and everyone we care for alive," she said.

Acknowledging that gun violence is an emotionally difficult topic for young people, Major asked a colleague to attend the club's meetings specifically to look after students' mental health. Special education teacher Olga Carballo said she practices mindfulness and leads breathing exercises with students. If she notices students who seem depressed or anxious, she refers them to the school's counselor.

"We would not have even introduced this — this would be inappropriate if students were not being killed in schools," Major said. "But the mere fact that students are being harmed in schools in these mass shootings, and it seems as if very little is being done, we know that the topic is appropriate. But we do take care."

In the fall, Major gave a presentation to other Miami-Dade teachers about how the magazine project could be replicated and even applied to other issues, like climate change and human trafficking.

He said the club doesn't have a specific political agenda, and the student members' views aren't all the same. Some have parents who own guns, while others think the Second Amendment should be scaled back.

Sometimes, the students disagree.

"We're humans," Major said. "When the kids get into the partisan debates, we redirect it right back to ... our common goal."

That's making sure that when students go to school in the morning, they come home safely in the afternoon. That shouldn't be controversial, he said.

"If we can get this generation to be above politics, we can be in a better place," he said.

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Some middle schoolers in Florida are hoping they can inspire Congress to act on gun control and school safety. About 40 students at a school in Miami are publishing a magazine about the effects of gun violence. They plan to distribute copies to every member of Congress and ask them to pass laws aimed at preventing mass shootings like the one at a Parkland high school two years ago. Jessica Bakeman from member station WLRN spent an afternoon with the club.

JESSICA BAKEMAN, BYLINE: The morning after the Parkland shooting, a middle school teacher in nearby Miami stood in front of his speech and debate class and had no idea what to say. Kelsey Major teaches at Everglades K-8 Center. It's a public school about an hour away from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 people had been killed the day before; 14 of them were students.

KELSEY MAJOR: It's a powerful thing when 13-year-olds and 14-year-olds are looking up to you for an answer to something that you don't have an answer for. In speech and debate, I was speechless.

BAKEMAN: After that day two years ago, the class decided to create a magazine about mass shootings. It's called First Shot. This school year, they formed a club to continue the project. They're raising money to print a copy of their second edition for all 535 members of the U.S. House and Senate. And they're planning a bus trip to deliver the magazine to the local offices of south Florida Congress members.

MAJOR: The mass shootings that we're focusing on this year are there.

BAKEMAN: Mr. Major points to a list on the whiteboard.

MAJOR: Columbine, Parkland.

BAKEMAN: Also Sandy Hook, the shooting at a black church in Charleston, Virginia Tech, the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

MAJOR: And so our focus is mass shootings in safe and sacred places.

BAKEMAN: Safe and sacred places, mainly schools and houses of worship. The sixth, seventh and eighth-graders are doing data analysis on gun violence statistics, applying scientific theories to research on mass shooters. They're drawing victims of gun violence and then using an app to digitize and color their portraits. They're working their way through 130 victims. Mia Magarinos (ph) is the head artist.

MIA MAGARINOS: We've only gotten up to Emily Garza, which is a little child.

BAKEMAN: A 7-year-old killed in 2017 at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Mia hopes the magazine makes members of Congress feel sad and like they should help.

MIA: Because this is not an everyday thing, but it's slowly becoming one. And it's not - that's not what it's supposed to be.

BAKEMAN: Miller Hernandez (ph) spends his time calling congressional leaders around the country, following up to see if they received last year's magazine.

MILLER HERNANDEZ: Hello, my name is Miller Hernandez. I am from a school in South Miami, Fla.

BAKEMAN: Here, he's calling Louisiana Republican Representative Steve Scalise's office.

HERNANDEZ: So we sent a couple of magazines by the name of First Shot.

BAKEMAN: The staff member who answered the phone took a message, and he asked Miller, what university did you say you were calling from?

HERNANDEZ: A middle school, actually, in South Miami, Fla.

BAKEMAN: When the students take their bus trip to local congressional offices next month, eighth-grader Susana Martinez (ph) will perform at some of the stops.

MAJOR: Susana, are you ready?


BAKEMAN: This is the club's anthem.

SUSANA: I went to school to learn the golden rule, to try to be cool, but not to sit in a pool of blood.

BAKEMAN: Their teacher, Kelsey Major, wrote this poem from a student's perspective based on a frightening experience he and Susana shared at school. She was showing a new student around and didn't hear the announcement - code red, active shooter.

SUSANA: I saw all the teachers, like, coming out of their classrooms and, like, locking the doors. And then that's when I noticed - I told, like, the kid immediately - I'm like, code red, come on.

BAKEMAN: It was just a drill, but she didn't know that.

SUSANA: And I was, like, scared, like, to death because, like, you know, in Parkland, a bunch of the kids, like, weren't able to get to their classrooms.

BAKEMAN: But then Mr. Major opened the door to his classroom and let her in.

SUSANA: Don't want to be first shot.

BAKEMAN: Sometimes the class performs this poem together as a group.

SUSANA: Children walk out the door, hands raised as in praise. Men still talk in suits and ties while they watch the future die.

BAKEMAN: Susana says the club's goal is to get Congress to listen to young people.

SUSANA: We are the future. That's what, like, all the, like, legislators say, that we are the future.

BAKEMAN: But she wonders, what about the now? For NPR News, I'm Jessica Bakeman in Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.