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Students to renew school safety activism as school starts

New Hampshire Union Leader

August 14. 2018 10:24PM
Manchester Central students gather for a vigil at the school's courtyard in April. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER FILE)

CONCORD — New Hampshire high school students, mobilized by the school shootings in Parkland, Fla., earlier this year, are using the six-month anniversary of the tragedy to set the stage for more school safety protests, community forums and legislative initiatives when school resumes.

With the theme “Back to School, Back to Action,” students will rally at the State House today to report on gun violence prevention efforts over the summer and plans for the upcoming school year.

“We are excited for the start of the school year, but we all know we are in danger when we leave for the first day of school. Back to school for us means back to headlines of school shootings every few weeks, and worrying we might be next,” says Mattison Howard, a sophomore at Concord High and a member of the N.H. Student Social Justice League.

Hundreds of New Hampshire high school students joined their counterparts from across the nation in March, walking out of classes to show their solidarity with the 17 victims of the Parkland shooting.

At the State House in April, they crowded the halls to direct their anger at the state Senate, which had just rejected a bill that would have allowed local communities to ban guns in schools.

A coalition of Exeter area high school students, calling themselves Exeter Orange (the color for gun safety), hosted community forums on gun safety in June and July, with another one planned for Sept. 28.

Jennifer White, a senior at Hopkinton High, said people can expect more protests or vigils and another legislative push in the year ahead.

White was among those who testified before a Senate committee last year on an ill-fated bill sponsored by Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, that would allow school boards to impose gun-free zones on school property.

Current state law grants the state legislature exclusive authority to impose restrictions on firearms, and precludes school board or municipalities from establishing gun-free zones on school or municipal property.

The state Senate voted 14-9 along party lines in March to defeat Hennessey’s bill, although a similar bill could be filed when the newly elected legislature begins its work after the November election.

“We’re hoping to do more rallies and we definitely want to continue to draw attention to all the lives that have been lost,” said White. “We’re working on a back-to-school kit for vigil planning that will go out to different schools across the state.”

The students also plan to be active in the general election campaign, working to highlight the records of incumbents on gun control.

“We’ve had a lot of students who have been doing door-to-door canvassing,” said White. “We think it’s really important to get involved with that because our main goal is to hold (politicians) accountable who need to be accountable.”

A gubernatorial task force on school safety presented 59 recommendations for change to Gov. Chris Sununu in June, but none them involved gun laws or regulations.

Proposed reforms include expanded mental health resources, an anonymous tip line, mandatory active shooter drills, a one-stop resource center and a school-based “See Something Say Something” campaign.

The state has also invested $30 million in grants for security improvements to 90 percent of school buildings in the state.

Alan Rice, president of the N.H. Firearms Coalition, says the students’ enthusiasm is misplaced.

“Gun-free zones don’t work,” he said. “If you look across the country at all of these shootings, they all happened in gun-free zones. Florida has an absolute ban on guns in schools.”

Rice said his organization will continue to fight any effort to enable local ordinances regarding firearms.

“The legislature has spoken,” he said. “They have prohibited local regulation and the system has worked very well. If you don’t want to carry a gun, don’t carry one. The beauty of it is the bad guys don’t know who has a gun and who doesn’t.”

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