KCHS, Notre Dame students make statements on school safety

Campus activities follow recent shootings in other states as parents, faculties share concerns about disturbing trend

By Emily Booker

Students attend a prayer vigil Jan. 23 at a church in Marion, Ky., after a 15-year-old boy opened fire with a handgun that day at Marshall County High School. Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called for prayers for the victims killed and injured in school shootings. [Catholic News Service]

Today’s high school students were born after Columbine—a word that has become synonymous with student shootings.

These students have always known lockdown drills and breaking news of gun violence in schools. They are young, but not too young to address the tragedy and the danger of violence in their hallways.

In the wake of the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., the national conversation about school safety and school shooting prevention has taken a distinctively younger tone. High school students are adding their voices to the discussions on school safety, gun control, and violence prevention. Both Diocese of Knoxville high schools, Notre Dame in Chattanooga and Knoxville Catholic, recently addressed the tragedy of school shootings and the hope that it won’t continue.

On March 14, students at NDHS walked out of class to a prayer service to pray for victims of school shootings and ask God’s blessings for safer school environments. Although the walkout was optional, around 200 students participated.

NDHS president George Valadie found that a prayer service was a way for the student body to take action without becoming divisive or too political.

“As I shared with the students, I didn’t want us just to walk out to draw attention to something I felt already had the nation’s attention. That, in my opinion, did not accomplish anything. I wanted to accomplish something. Praying is something that, in my opinion, does accomplish something.”

Mr. Valadie had created a card for each school shooting victim—including those injured and killed—since Columbine. Each card included the school, city, age of the shooter, number of victims in that shooting, and if the student victim died. In total, he made 447 cards that were handed out during the prayer service.

“We passed them around so everybody had their own card, identifying with one person as best they could,” he said. After 17 minutes of silence in memory of the Parkland shooting victims, they prayed for all the other victims as well.

The service also included Scripture readings and petitions.

“The petitions were focused not so much in memory but more looking forward,” Mr. Valadie explained.

“Praying for wisdom for legislators, praying for the safety for all, praying for gun owners, that they would work to be safe, just a variety of petitions.”

Mr. Valadie noted that the school had posted the addresses of legislators for students who wanted to contact their government representatives with concerns or suggestions.

Knoxville Catholic High School dedicated its Mass on March 22 to the victims of the Parkland shooting. KCHS then held a town hall meeting on March 28 to discuss the troubling rising number of school shootings and concerns for school safety. Around 150 students, teachers, and parents attended.

The town hall, which was student-driven and emceed by senior Conor Metz, featured a panel of students, teachers, administrators, and first responders to guide and answer questions. People shared their ideas, opinions, and concerns related to mass shootings, prevention, and safety.

“Several days after [the Parkland shooting], I had a group of our student council members approach me about trying to coordinate our school’s response to the tragic school shooting,” said Dickie Sompayrac, president of Knoxville Catholic High School. “The students were great. They came up with the ideas, and they had the idea to do a town hall.”

“One of the things we decided early was whatever we did as a school, we really wanted the students to be the ones driving it, and they did. Our student council did a great job, along with some other students, of really taking the lead,” he added.

Coincidentally, earlier in the day of the town hall meeting, KCHS went into lockdown as a result of a shooting and subsequent police search for an armed suspect in the area near the school. The incident was unrelated to the KCHS community.

“It was really interesting to do one that was not a drill. This was a real lockdown,” Mr. Sompayrac said.

“For a lot of students, it made the town hall even that much more important.… Now students had experienced a heart-pumping lockdown where you didn’t know exactly what was going on.”

Mr. Sompayrac was pleased with the effort the students put into leading the town hall, and with the turnout and response it received.

“School safety was a big topic that night. Gun control came up that night. But we also talked about what can we do as individuals, as a school community, and as a broader community to help prevent incidents like the shooting that happened in Parkland. So it was a really, really positive night in terms of folks getting to discuss not only their own views but to ask questions too,” he noted.

Student council members also set up a table for anyone who wanted to write a letter to their legislators. The students had stationery and envelopes available. People could write a letter, drop it in a box, and the student council made sure it was mailed to the appropriate legislator.

Sister Mary Marta Abbott, RSM, superintendent of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Knoxville, was glad to see the diocesan high schools address the sobering topic of school safety. “I think it’s great that the high schools are doing something,” she said.

As the topic of school safety is at the top of the national consciousness again, Sister Mary Marta knows that some parents might have questions about safety policies at their children’s schools.

“I know in general, since the whole thing happened in Florida, our schools have been putting out more messages about safety.…I know everyone’s been trying to be more aware of what they’re doing,” she said.

She noted that all 10 diocesan schools are locked during the day and require visitors to contact the front office for entrance.

“I think everything we’re doing right now, with our schools to keep them safe, overall, I think we’re doing a good job. And we have good communication with the cities and counties that we’re in.”

The Catholic Schools Office currently is developing a system-wide policy to address weapons on school campuses and other safety procedures.

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