As Marshall County High School student Keaton Conner helps other students across the state plan a march at the state Capitol in Frankfort, Jan. 23 is still fresh in her mind.
That’s the day she unknowingly was trapped in a room with the shooter who had just taken two lives and injured several other people at the school in Western Kentucky.
“I had people hysterical who saw their friends shot, one of my friends was shot,” she recalls. She was approached by brothers who pleaded “for me to tell them that I had seen their sisters alive.”
“As much as I wish I didn’t have to think about it every second of the day, there’s a reason that I have to remember all this, so that I can try to make a difference,” Keaton, 16, said. “We will not let this go on anymore. I’m not going to give up before I know that it’s not going to happen again.”
Students from Marshall County High in Benton, have gotten less national attention than students in Parkland, Fla., who survived a school shooting that killed 17 on Feb. 14. Those Florida students have been fixtures on social media and cable TV news for their activism.
But Keaton and another Marshall County student, Abby Henson, are hoping more Marshall County students will find their voice.
The girls are working with the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team to plan a March 20, “March for Our Lives KY Student Teach-In” at the Capitol in Frankfort. It will highlight the issue of student safety and school climate in the context of recent school shootings and threats in Kentucky and across the country.
The day of action is part of the larger March for Our Lives rallies, set for March 24 and organized by the survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
“The big-picture idea is that in order to support students organizing local events, including the March for Our Lives events coordinated with the Parkland students’ event in Washington, D.C., on March 24, we are hosting a teach-in and rally on the Capitol steps a few days earlier — March 20. Our hope is to provide policy and communications strategies to youth leaders and adult allies and then stage a collective, statewide show of support,” said Rachel Belin, the adult director of the Lexington-based Prichard Committee Student Voice Team.
The Student Voice Team will lead the teach-in to discuss school safety and climate. Youth and adult organizers of local rallies are being encouraged to attend. After the teach-in, the Student Voice Team will host a rally on the steps of the Capitol to call on policymakers to take action to reduce violence in Kentucky schools
“This is a way for students to have a voice,” said Keaton. “We can’t vote, but that doesn’t mean our opinions can’t be heard, especially if it’s something that is so strongly affecting us. I’m trying to get people in my community more involved in this and people across the state. Anybody who wants to make a change, I feel like this is our best bet of doing so.
“I think that we need increased funding and training for mental health services in schools. I think we need gun control. There’s no reason for anyone to have an assault rifle or magazines that hold large capacities. I think it needs to be a lot harder to get your hands on any sort of weapon. We need increased school security,” said Keaton.
Abby Henson, another Marshall County High Student, said that she took time to heal after the shooting and that planning the Frankfort march, “is so much about moving forward.”
She wants to be a teacher one day and wants to make classrooms safer for her future students.
“I don’t want them to ever experience what I have,” said Abby. “I”m going to do whatever it takes to make that happen.”
Abby thinks more schools need metal detectors: “Why aren’t we making our schools as safe as our airports?” she asked.
Belin said that the students from Marshall County are joining Student Voice Team members from across the state — including Daviess, Green, Boone, Fayette, Nicholasville, Jefferson, Magoffin and Woodford counties — to help design, implement, and promote the March 20 teach-in and rally.
“The reality and prospect of school shootings have been devastating for our schools and country as a whole,” said Prichard Committee Executive Director Brigitte Blom Ramsey. “But the way students are organizing themselves, underscoring the urgency of this issue, and driving a new conversation about how to ensure school safety and a school climate conducive to learning at the highest level gives us reason for hope. This cannot be a partisan issue. Our students deserve our support, and they deserve much better.”
At a meeting of the Student Voice Team Tuesday night in Lexington, students talked about how recent threats, arrests and even rumors and false alarms at their schools had put them on edge. Some students talked about uncertainty about what to do in case of an intruder, said they jumped at the sound of a dropped textbook on the floor or had begun looking for potential hiding places when they entered classrooms.
Madison Ortega, a Rowan County High School student, said that just Monday, a student posted a threat online that resulted in a lockdown at her school. She wants to raise awareness at the rally.
“It was just a BB Gun and it wasn’t a big threat, but students were crying,” Madison said. She said it brought the national conversation on school safety into perspective.
After the meeting, Belin said, among students “there was some consensus that as a community, we need to find the right balance of safety measures and trust and openness.”
“The militarization of schools is not necessarily making students feel safer in Fayette County,” Belin said., describing what students told her at the meeting.“For many, in fact, it seems to be having the opposite effect. Several in our group described a hypervigilance that is exhausting and giving them the sense that they are going to school in a prison. This contrasts with what students said they felt in counties outside of Fayette where there seems to be little preparation at all for an active shooter. Students from outside of Fayette told us last night they also feel unsafe but it’s because no one seems to be taking the issue seriously.”
Students planning the Frankfort rally are developing talking points they can take to lawmakers and other policymakers. They said they want to be taken seriously, to feel engaged and included in deciding on new safety measures as well as feeling physically safe, said Nasim Mohammadzadeh, a student at Paul Laurence Dunbar in Lexington.
“You don’t have to be experienced. You don’t have to be an expert in policy and legislation, but you have a narrative and you have stories to share,” Nasim said.
Belin said students want policy makers to promote safer, more engaging, and more inclusive schools that ensure all students can learn at high levels. That includes addressing access to guns like the one used at Parkland, ensuring better mental health resources, implementing effective, fair, and consistent school discipline policies, and a sustained commitment to building social and emotional capacity among students and staff.
Students said they wanted to be part of the solution to ensuring safer schools.
In addition to the Student teach-in and rally, the Student Voice Team will launch a coalition of local March for Our Lives rallies and other interested groups to coordinate the local rallies and statewide action.
“The tragedies in Marshall County and Parkland have awakened us to the fact that when it comes to school safety, the status quo is unacceptable, and we have to be the change we want to see,” said Henry Clay High School senior Amanda Byerman. “We are constituents too. “
IF YOU GO: The March for Our Lives KY Student Teach-In and Rally will be held at the state Capitol in Frankfort on Tuesday, March 20. The teach-in will take place in Capitol Annex room 131 from 1:30 to 4:00 p.m. The rally will take place immediately after at 5:00 p.m. on the steps of the Capitol. Events are open to the public, with a special emphasis on student leaders. People wanting to attend the Teach-In are asked to register by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information visit www.marchforourlivesky.org.