*pistol images by Harbinger photo editors
Those backpacks, freshman Aidan Winne thought. There could be one in any of those backpacks.
School hadn’t been dangerous to him before. Now it was terrifying. It could be anyone in the crowded, noisy hallway full of mostly strangers on the first week of school. His eyes bobbed up and down, analyzing. Anyone could have a motivation, a reason, a gun. But no one knows if, where, why or how until shots are fired, he said. Just like no one knew before Erin.
Erin — his cousin’s best friend and roommate, who became a close friend to Aidan and would cheer him on at his baseball and basketball games — was killed Aug. 2 at a First Fridays event in the Crossroads. She’d been hit by a stray bullet in line at a food truck after a man fired pistol shots from an adjacent parking lot. She was pronounced dead 35 minutes later. Around 15 hours after, 22 were left dead in an El Paso Walmart. And ten more were killed nearly 14 hours later in a mass shooting in Dayton’s Oregon district.
As students entered the school year following this concentrated gun violence in early August, the impact has ranged from a heightened sense of awareness to action and movement on solutions in an effort to lower gun violence deaths. The need for real conversations is high, as well as the importance of awareness towards the risk of gun violence, according to Asst. Principal Britton Haney.
For Winne, the risk is everywhere.
“After Erin, it really hit me that this could happen to absolutely anyone,” Winne said. “You hear it so much on the news, and you just start to tune it out. But after Erin, it hit me. It happens every day, every hour, every minute, everywhere, it seems like.”
Senior Anna Gunderman sees the events as a “shot away” from Prairie Village — questioning her own safety coming to school every day, whether drills are enough to deal with the problem and how many days before an incident like the ones on the news happens at East.
Junior Ellie Peters, who went to church with Erin and donated at a blood drive that raised 900 pints in her name, holds the concern both in and out of the school. She goes to First Fridays sometimes. Dresses up with her friends and takes photos there. Orders food from food trucks. It could’ve easily been her, she said.
For some students, the impact is direct and has furthered their efforts from concerns to operation.
Senior Margaret Veglahn was in the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City when an active shooter began targeting people within the building in 2014. Three people were killed in the shooting — and Veglahn, hiding in a bathroom on lockdown for eight hours, survived.
“I just remember watching this woman, her son and her father were two of the people killed, she couldn’t walk without people helping her,” Veglahn said. “Seeing that, it was so real, and it was no longer news stories, like this is a person who’s had her entire life stolen in the last two hours.”
Veglahn joined the Kansas City branch of Students Demand Action, a nationwide subsection of Everytown For Gun Safety, which plans gun control rallies and enlists students’ help in reaching out and lobbying lawmakers. She receives texts and emails with ways to help, including which rallies to attend and “bills to call your senator about voting yes or no on.” The texts and group chats with members make it “easy to help with change, even when life gets busy.”
Caroline Bennett — the leader of Kansas City’s Students Demand Action chapter and a senior in high school — became active in the gun violence prevention movement after recurring nightmares of “dying by a gun.”
Bennett stressed the importance of connecting with representatives in government and building relationships to build support for initiatives — making sure that “day-to-day conversations are happening.”
Members of congress echo the importance of student groups, hailing them as the first, vital step of fostering change in government.
“Change comes from communities and groups like Moms Demand group, the Grandparents for Gun Safety group, the Students Demand group,” Rep. Sharice Davids (D-KS) said. “There are a lot of people who are working, literally boots on the ground, that are the ones pushing legislators to take action and try to find bipartisan issues or consensus. And it’s really important right now.”
American University freshman Jackson Mittleman’s efforts began on 12/14 — the day in 2012 when his sixth-grade class at Reed Intermediate School in Newtown, CT went on lockdown for five hours.
That day, Mittleman said, panic and shock swept the city — the one soon to be marked ground zero of the first major mass shooting at an elementary school, and one to be whelmed in heartache for years to come. The day ended with Mittleman being told that a family friend, Noah, had been murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School, an eight-minute drive from Reed. 26 others were killed. 20 were children.
After realizing the “problem was right there in front of us,” he joined the Junior Newtown Action Alliance, a grassroots organization advocating for “common sense” gun legislation in Connecticut and Washington, D.C. He was contacted by members of the Women’s March, and together they organized the national school walkout that took place on March 14 last year. Then he was asked to speak at the March for Our Lives in Washington on March 24, with over one million in attendance.
“We’ve seen much more involvement now with the awareness behind these shootings, but we know they’re going to happen until we do something about it,” Mittleman said. “More and more people get involved and more and more people decide that the right to bear arms is not more important than the rights of people to live and feel safe in their own communities. That’s how we can get it to change.”
The impact to be made by youth — junior Ellie Freeman, who also works with SDA, said — is limited to what the government will act on. Recently — according to Freeman, Mittleman and Veglahn — the government’s ambition to pass these laws has been questionable, and perhaps the reason for the lack of action.
“A lot of people say, like they did after Sandy Hook, that everyone thought ‘we’re shooting kindergarteners, now is the time, we’re going to change things,’ and then the government moved on,” Veglahn said.
“We wouldn’t have been doing this if we weren’t all very frustrated, because we don’t feel like it’s our job to do it,” Freeman said. “We feel like the people in the government should be taking care of it. And they’re not.”
Officials in both state and national congressional positions have proposed plans that will attempt to reduce the number of deaths from gun violence — but the bills and proposals have, in some members’ eyes, been dead on sight and, at times, purposefully prevented from a vote. Concerned citizens have not only taken action, but also taken notice of the stagnations in the voting process and questioned the democratic validity of the legislative branch.
Two specific bills that aim to strengthen background checks on guns raise questions of whether or not the Senate is deliberately holding out on a vote for their passage, according to Rep. Sharice Davids (D-KS) and organizations working to lower gun violence, like Students Demand Action. The bills would require all gun sellers to conduct background checks on all gun buyers (H.R. 8), and would extend the background check waiting period from three days to ten (H.R. 1112).
Both passed with a majority vote in the House of Representatives in February, but have sat on the Senate desk since early March with no scheduled vote. A majority approval from the Senate and a signature from President Donald Trump are the remaining steps for the bills to pass.
Bipartisan movement on the bills can be made, Davids said at a gun violence roundtable, if Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) — who is in charge of when and which bills are voted on in the Senate — would stop holding off on the vote to pass these bills in the Senate.
The idea of proposed H.R. 8 background checks is supported amongst most Americans on both sides of the political aisle, according to members of national and state Congress, government officials, organization leaders and students interviewed for this story. Certain political interest groups and media sources, according to a member of a Washington organization speaking under the condition of anonymity, “paint a picture of false division” in regards to supporters and rejecters of H.R. 8 and its proposal.
In a Public Policy Polling survey of gun owners in the U.S., it was found that 83 percent of owners supported background checks for all purchased firearms — 24 percent polled were registered members of the NRA, and of those members, 72 percent said they’d support background checks on all guns purchased. According to a July NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, 89 percent of Americans support background checks for all purchases at gun shows and private sales, with 84 percent of Republicans supporting it and 96 percent of Democrats.
“If the bill isn’t going to pass, show us that, so we can work on the ways to actually get the vote passed and so we can come together and have that conversation,” Davids said at the roundtable. “But now, that’s not even on the table because he won’t take it to a vote. And that’s a real problem, because people want and need this to happen.”
In an Aug. 5 press release, Davids requested that the Senate — which is on summer recess from Aug. 5 to Sept. 9 — regroup and hold an emergency session to vote on the two bills as an “opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to the people.”
Senior Grace Reber, an outspoken Republican and supporter of Second Amendment gun rights, emphasized the importance of collaboration by lawmakers and agreement on background checks.
“I think it’s perfectly fine, like I don’t really understand why there should be any problem with background checks,” Reber said. “That’s kind of something where if you have felonies or something, you really shouldn’t have guns.”
Junior Ellie Freeman, a Democrat and member of Kansas City’s Students Demand Action chapter, sees universal background checks as the “middle ground” stance that should be taken up by both sides of the political aisle — not one to be punted on by the Senate.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) expressed interest in Congress having “a serious conversation about mental health” and how to “ensure people” the safety of living life without “these heinous crimes” in a statement regarding the Dayton and El Paso shootings. Roberts did not mention background checks in the statement, however, and voted against the idea in a 1999 Senate Amendment that called for requirement of background checks at gun shows.
KS Gov. Laura Kelly has criticized the lack of action in Congress and across the country, calling for an end to partisan playbooks and lack of bipartisan cooperation.
“I join you in being sick and tired of the repeated gun violence,” Kelly said at a Moms Demand Action rally. “Our struggling teenagers who succeed at killing themselves before we can help, and the lack of action by policymakers nationwide who refuse to pass sensible gun safety measures, like universal background checks, to end the bloodshed.”
At the state level, Kelly stressed the importance of “preventive, safety-minded changes” for Kansas, and that respect for the Second Amendment should be maintained, but with added “common sense changes.” These changes would include the introduction of bills similar to H.R. 8 and H.R. 1112, as well as “red flag” laws, which would allow police or family members who feel endangered by a gun owner to petition a state court for removal of the gun.
But much of the same disallowance of a vote on so-called “common sense” laws seen in the U.S. Senate are present within the state, according to KS Rep. Jerry Stogsdill (D-KS).
“These are leaders who constantly stifle any kind of debate or discussion on issues that they don’t want discussed or have an interest in,” Stogsdill said. “So we have to have leadership that respects the process in the legislature, and lets us have discussions and committee meetings and roundtables.”
There are bills that fit the “common sense” description that have been introduced to the KS House specifically, such as H.B. 2111. The proposal calls for gun sellers that are not a licensed firearms dealer to conduct background checks for buyers that also do not have a license. This would be in effect “at gun shows or over the internet” only, according to the bill’s fiscal note.
“We license and register things like cars, things that can even kill people, and can then find the person since they have a license,” junior Ellie Freeman, a member of Students Demand Action’s Kansas City chapter, said. “But we don’t register all guns. And it’s not a priority in the government right now.”
H.B. 2111 has not yet passed the second step of the first phase of the state’s bill-passing process, which is the referral to a committee. There has been no movement on that bill’s status on the KS House website since the day it was introduced and referred on Jan. 30.
The goal for gun control bills and “common sense” laws in Kansas is not to get rid of all guns — ”there’s 350 million guns in this country, that ship has sailed,” Stogsdill said. They would instead keep guns from “the hands of criminals” and people that pose a threat to themselves or others, not “hunters and target shooters” and “people who are in a stable state.”
To do this, he said, either a leadership change or inclusion of “common sense” ideas would be needed, and was doubtful of the latter’s likelihood.
“I would like to think that the current leadership would be amenable to change, but I really haven’t seen any indication of that,” Stogsdill said. “We’re up there to work, and when you have leadership that won’t let us work, then we need a change in leadership.”
The offices of the KS Speaker of the House and Speaker Pro Tempore did not respond to emails from The Harbinger regarding comments for this story.
And in Prairie Village, new laws and regulations have been considered and are wanted by city officials, according to Mayor Eric Mikkelson — but current guidelines set by the KS legislature do not allow individual cities to set their own rules for issues like gun control.
“We don’t think it’s a one size fits all approach, we think that a suburban community like Prairie Village should be able to have different rules than a rural community in western Kansas,” Mikkelson said. “That’s something we try to get fixed in Topeka each year, but we do not have control over most regulation.”
As of this writing, no announcement over whether the U.S. Senate will call an emergency session has been made. If the current schedule comes to pass, the chamber will regather Sept. 9.
The district, school and pertinent members of law enforcement recognize both the risk and heightened unease present in the school regarding gun violence. And to prevent risks in the school, according to Officer Tony Woollen, a student resource officer at East, the best action for students is to voice any concern of threat and to continue actively training staff and students with drills.
“I think people are just more aware now that this stuff could happen anywhere at anytime,” Det. Seth Meyer, another SRO at East, said. “And a lot of these things have been thwarted because somebody said something. And it can be anything, really. Just come on in, shut the door and we can talk about it.”
Students shedding light on concerns of any magnitude aid in the school and district’s ability to conduct threat assessments, which involve investigations by law enforcement to determine the validity and possibility of a harmful outcome. To do this, Woollen said, students can come and speak to him and Meyer in room 312, to administration or, if they prefer, report the problem anonymously on the district’s bullying hotline system — which is monitored by professionals in administration and the district police chief.
Another new, broader resource for students is a website developed by the Kansas Bureau of Investigations, called the KBI Suspicious Activity Reporting site. This allows users to anonymously report odd or suspicious behavior to the site, which would then be evaluated by trained KBI personnel.
Once a threat is identified by any of these means, according to Capt. and District Police Commander Mark Schmidt, officers will meet with students that were reported as a potential threat, the student’s parents and other individuals close to them, such as a friend or neighbor. The district has adopted the Colorado Bureau of Investigation’s threat assessment tool of 12 steps of questioning associated parties, Woollen added, that evaluate capacity to carry out an attack or evidence of planning an attack.
The threat assessment process isn’t only to protect the school from threats, Schmidt said, but also to make sure the reported student is stable and receiving the services they need.
“A lot of times the potential problems some students cause are just a cry for help or a personal issue that a student might be dealing with,” Schmidt said. “And if that’s the case, we want to make sure we get the right resources to them to help them with that situation. Maybe it’s a different school. Maybe it’s just moving to a different class, away from someone that has a negative effect.”
Around 70 percent of threats found or reported to schools involve “emotional, situational reactions, actions or figures of speech” and are resolved over the course of days or a few weeks — according to Dr. Daniel C. Claiborn, a forensic scientist specialized to aid schools and parents in addressing potential threats of violence from students.
“It’s become something really important now, like what could happen, and in the seminar drills, how the main issue was if there’s a shooting, what do you do?” sophomore Jane Thiede said. “ I think about it pretty often. It’s so intensely in detail, how we talk about it, and it’s kind of scary because it makes it seem more real. It’s important.”
The more substantive threats, Claiborn said, are in the form of repeated “red flags” that point to the possibility of eventual violence. Some of these red flags include threats that have been “reported to others as a plan,” have repeated over time and include physical evidence like an essay, manifesto or diagram of a planned event with malicious intent.
The school conducted active shooter drills and discussions once a month last year per requirements, with this year’s requirements lessening to once a quarter, Woollen said. The school varies the types of drills — like barricading doors or hiding in the classroom — to more efficiently train students and staff on potential courses of action in the event of a shooting.
Still, some students feel some of the mounting pressure and possibility of a gun violence incident to be impervious to the school’s action and prevention efforts.
Aidan Winne, Jane Thiede, Ellie Peters, Ellie Freeman, Margaret Veglahn and Anna Gunderman are all a little scared. They pay close attention to every drill, every conversation, every time. And although the school is working at lengths to protect them, they all feel that until substantial change is made — in the government or elsewhere — true safety can’t be achieved.
“It’s a hard thing to talk about, kind of like talking about your will when you’re old, no one wants to think about it, but there’s a reality that we can’t really ignore now.” Winne said. “ It’s happening in our own neighborhoods and around the area and in a walk that’s 5 minutes away. That’s a reality we kind of have to live with now, more than pretty much ever. You could get shot. Anywhere.”