Toms River students sponsored a rally against gun violence Monday in solidarity with the survivors of the mass shooting that claimed 17 lives at a high school in Parkland, Florida, last week. Some teens say they feel directly threatened.
“I don’t want to be scared in my own high school, that I’m going to get shot while I’m trying to learn. It’s not something that should be a concern of someone that’s just trying to get an education,” said student Maya Kleyman.
“We shouldn’t have to be standing here, demanding protection from legislation. There should already be stricter gun laws implemented. There should already be changes going on,” said student Evelyn Navario.
“No one up here is trying to say, ‘Take away the Second Amendment’ or ‘Take away their guns.’ That’s not what we’re saying. We’re saying, ‘Why can’t we be smart?’ Why can’t we be like other nations and end this senseless, mindless violence,” asked rally organizer Zach Dougherty.
Dougherty is a junior at Toms River High School North. He reached out to Parkland survivor David Hogg and asked what he could do.
“And he said, ‘Organize Monday! Don’t wait,'” Dougherty said. “It’s our generation’s responsibility because it’s not working in Congress. We need to show them. We need to elect people who care.”
Dougherty vowed to work with a brand new grassroots movement in New Jersey called Students Demand Action, and also to support the anguished and angry Parkland students who protested Saturday against the NRA, and for stronger gun control.
“We need to pay attention to the fact that this isn’t just a mental health issue. He wouldn’t have hurt as many students with a knife,” said Emma.
Different towns, different reactions. Just a day after the Parkland shooting, East Brunswick’s Board of Education voted to put armed police officers in every school immediately. That’s in addition to more than 70 security officers who already patrol there. The superintendent says Parkland gave them a sense of urgency.
“It is a big step, absolutely. When you talk about bringing an armed person into the building,” said Victor Valeski, superintendent of the East Brunswick school district. “My recommendation and the board’s reaction was more immediacy. What do we do now to protect our students and our staff? And I think that was the catalyst for the discussion and the decision.”
Reaction from school parents, he says, has been mostly supportive. It’ll cost more than $430,000 on top of the $1.7 million East Brunswick already spends on unarmed security officers. The board says, it won’t feel like an armed camp.
“It was, I think, probably the most unpleasant decision that I’ve ever made as a board member, but one that was necessary,” said Todd Simmens, the president of the East Brunswick Board of Education. “We’ve gone from having sort of greeters at out front doors, to now having retired police officers there. So we have been making noticeable changes over the years. Having an East Brunswick police officer in our buildings we don’t think will change that.”
Gov. Phil Murphy spoke at a church in Asbury Park on Sunday. He said his administration will continue to work for enhanced gun control.
“New Jersey will think. New Jersey will pray. But I guarantee you, New Jersey will act,” he said.
The backlash sparked by the Parkland massacre is spreading. Students there will meet with the president on Wednesday, and protest rallies are scheduled for March in Washington and nationwide.