Op-Ed

Young leaders on school, gun safety deserve respect

Student survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting were greeted Feb. 18 as they arrived at a rally for gun control on the steps of the state Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla.
Student survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting were greeted Feb. 18 as they arrived at a rally for gun control on the steps of the state Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. Associated Press

Funerals for teenagers killed in the massacre at a Parkland, Fla. high school were still in progress when new attacks started. This time, the perpetrators are shooting derogatory social-media posts at the teens who have turned their grief and rage into action for gun control and school safety.

Their mantra: This tragedy will go down in history as the last mass school shooting.

Their critics are attempting to turn bipartisan public and political sympathy into ridicule that will discredit the young people’s capacity for organizing and carrying out large-scale demonstrations, and inspiring teen-led rallies in other cities.

According to the critics, the teens are: “crisis actors” speaking scripted words; plants by left-wing groups; part of conspiracies and fronts for parents and politicians using them to promote their own causes.

Images from other teen change-agents flash through my mind:

Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist who took a would-be assassin’s bullet at age 15 after defying the Taliban’s prohibition on the education of girls; the youngest Nobel laureate in history, whose recovery was marked by worldwide social-media photos of teens holding signs of support for their courageous peer.

Closer to home, rising high school juniors across the United States and beyond annually attend the Hugh O’ Brien Youth Leadership program and return to their communities to establish programs such as the heARTS4arts program instituted in Lexington in 2011 by 15-year-old Virginia Newsome. The nonprofit was “founded by kids for kids” to solicit, collect and redistribute arts supplies for the visual and performing arts and to advocate for the arts.

A roster of HOBY alumni and their projects for community service, together with the roster of the annual Prudential Spirit of Community Awards to two students from each state, speak to the capacity of young leaders to be change agents.

The personal experiences of young people, combined with physical and emotional energy and the ability to utilize social media, make for a force to be reckoned with.

The sickness in our culture which demeans whatever we do not understand or agree with has moved from ugly adult confrontation to belittling of bright, articulate young people who are not only the future of our planet, but rising leaders who have an important role to play today. These are roles we have claimed to support and encourage.

They are voices of honesty — not yet quieted by parents, teachers, peers or special-interest pressures — when they smell something wrong. Perhaps that is what is most threatening to those who rush to discredit them. The stink that has enshrouded their world is the rot in a government which they perceive is failing them.

The school shooting is not something these young people are likely to forget. I pray for them to be heard, respected and responded to — not with intimations of youthful oversimplification, but with serious attention to one of the numerous factors creating and sustaining this epidemic. They are the voices of sanity in a crazy world. Hope in the darkness in which we are trying to survive.

As an executive of the Prudential Service Awards says, “These service-minded young people have brought meaningful change to communities at home and abroad, and it’s a privilege to celebrate their work.”

Perhaps we should turn our investigative powers on those who critique and demean such service, and throw our support behind these young leaders. Count me in.

Kay Collier McLaughlin is an author and leadership consultant who lives in Nicholas County. Reach her at kcollierm@gmail.com.

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