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Operation Ground Zero: Kennedy High is at the Forefront of the Gun Debate

By Dominic J Larsen, News Editor

The number of school shootings has dramatically skyrocketed during the short lived twenty-first century, leading many on both sides of the aisle and folks from all walks of American life to look for solutions in order to prevent these senseless, perverted acts of violence.

Following the horrific attack in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day, in which 17 students were murdered by a former classmate, students across the country organized a national walkout in order to protest gun violence. In the hopes of assisting students express their opinions, while also curbing the disruption of instructional time, SCUSD worked with the schools to set up times in which students could speak their minds.

In cooperation with Congresswoman Matsui’s Office, the Kennedy administration worked to plan a community town hall in which students and members of the neighborhood could speak directly to their elected officials on the topic of gun control and school safety.

The meeting, which was scheduled for March 9 from 3:30 to 5:00 pm, was hosted in the campus auditorium with Rep. Matsui, SCUSD Superintendent Jorge Aguilar, and school board member Darrel Woo in attendance. All three of these officials spoke on the subject of securing schools in the wake of shootings, with student speaker senior Malissa Bordeaux adding her remarks as well.

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Senior Malissa Bordeaux posing for a photo with Congresswoman Doris Matsui shortly thereafter the Gun Safety Townhall (Photo by Sarif Morningstar)

Alongside the politicians that spoke, Parkland survivors engaged in a Q&A with Kennedy students via facetime. Throughout her speech, and afterwards, Congresswoman Matsui emphasized the importance of student activism and thanked all of the students that worked to better their neighborhoods.

Shortly after stepping off stage, at the end of the event,  Rep. Doris Matsui spoke with Clarion reporters, stating  “It is the teens. It is the young people. They want us to have a future. You are articulate and speak up, that’s really what it is all about. They are challenging the adults… that’s the difference today.”

Though the conference of elected officials and neighborhood elements was meant to yield results leading in a positive direction, the community was still consumed with fear of a possible school shooting.

The evening of Tuesday, March 13, the Kennedy administration informed families that a shooting threat had been made against one of the school’s students. While the threat was made specifically to only one Kennedy student and their sibling at Cal Middle School, both schools felt it necessary to alert to all families and faculty members due to the current climate around guns in schools.

Prior to the statements released by both Kennedy and Cal, the vast majority of both student bodies had been informed of the threats sent through text messages. The earliest reports of students being aware of the threatened shooting occur  around 7 pm.

A screenshot of the initial text message began to circulate social media platforms, such as Snapchat and Instagram, with the Kennedy administration officially releasing a statement at 9:47 pm in an email from the principal.

In a message sent out by Kennedy principal, David Van Natten, it was disclosed that once the police had been notified of the threats, two law enforcement agencies began to conduct investigations surrounding the claims. Alongside the investigations, the presence of law enforcement increased on campus in order to safeguard the security of the school. Speaking directly to students, Van Natten issued the advice “As a reminder, if you ever witness any suspicious activity please report it immediately to the police department by calling (916) 264-5471, or dialing 9-1-1 in case of an emergency.”

Following the eventful night of the 13th, the Kennedy campus found itself slim on student attendance. Even though the student body had planned a walkout, in accordance to the guidelines laid out in a letter sent out by the administration, to protest gun violence, a number of students did not show for concern for their safety and well-being.

“It’s something to talk about. The first threat took place on the day we were supposed to unite against gun violence, specifically in schools, but, it was still a good turnout despite the fear it already encouraged. Any students who stayed and participated in the march to show that we aren’t gonna stop fighting. Florida really was the last straw,” professed senior Marcelina “Marci” Ayana when questioned on her support for the class walkout.

Echoing the comments of his classmate, David Yu, another senior, stated, “One thing that struck a chord with me was that a lot of people had known about the shooter threat before hand and came to school anyways. It takes a lot of bravery to stand up for what you believe in even when you think that you might be harmed doing it.”

Kennedy students walk along the west side of the campus between parking lot and auditorium during Walkout event. (Clarion staff photo)

The walkout, which lasted for 17 minutes to memorialize the 17 lives lost during the Stoneman Douglas shooting, started at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, March 14. Students and teachers that choose to participate exited their classrooms and met with the other protesters until they converged out in front of the school. Upon meeting, the student body was directed by senior Billy Hernandez on the form the protest would take.

Once gathered and instructed, the group, consisting of students and teachers, reentered the campus and marched around the rim of the quad. A number of participants carried signs that they had crafted in the days leading up to the march. Returning to the front entrance of the campus, the group of protesters engaged in listening to a few words of reassurance offered by student speaker Malissa Bordeaux.

Even with low attendance, not all of the students that came to school participated in the walkout. Some attended school but did not join in the walkout, fearing that if a shooting did occur, it would happen with the all of the student body congregated together. Other students, that hold conservative ideals, chose not to partake in the demonstrations, as they wanted to remember the lives lost and stand against gun violence without protesting their gun rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment.

One of the students not participating in the walkout was freshman Elijah White, who voiced opposition to the push for gun control, stating “A school sanctioned protest is not really a protest, it is just some activity.”

Feeling that his classmates were looking for solutions were none could be found, White advised “Just because a tool is harder to get does not mean people will not get them. We need to get to the root cause of the problem.” He suggested a number of policies that could be adopted to prevent the ever increasing occurrence of school shootings. Believing the problems surrounding gun violence is mainly due to mental health issues, he called for an increase in resources available to those suffering from an array of problems, ranging from depression and familial issues to the autism spectrum disorder.

Overhearing the conversation, White’s classmate, freshman Jalen Martin, chimed in, proclaiming“ I am tired of all of this! Knowing that I can walk into a classroom at the wrong time or wrong place, it makes me nervous to know that there are people who want to hurt and terrorize.”

Both ninth graders wanted to see some form of safety measures introduced, whether it be armed security guards or allowing teachers to carry firearms. Understanding the concern around teachers having the ability to possess firearms, White felt as if so long as teachers were willing to undergo a strict background check and training process, they should have the right to do so on campus.

However not all students that came to school on Wednesday, March 14 came with positive intentions. The Kennedy Administration notified families that an unnamed student was arrested for the possession of a firearm on campus. The individual reportedly brought a BB gun to school, and on the bus to school.

In an official email from the Kennedy administration to the parents of students, Principal Van Natten clearly laid out the school’s policy on weapons on campus, “Please remind your students that weapons of any kind are strictly prohibited on our campus and that any student found in possession of a weapon will face consequences up to expulsion and arrest.”

Following the threatened shooting and the organized walkout, the campus found itself calm and quite, that is until the morning of Friday, March 16. Students, once again, received threats via text message, which quickly began to circulate around the student body.

The author of the text messages claimed to have placed explosives in certain wings of the school and continued by threatening to “shoot-up” the school.

The administration was notified as soon as the initial threat was issued. Teachers and staff were informed of the threat prior to the lockdown process being initiated. At the start of third period, the alarm, usually denoting a lockdown or intruder drill, sounded and alerted students to quickly and orderly enter the nearest classroom.

With students and staff in secured classrooms, the alarm continued to ring throughout the halls. Interrupting the blaring sound of the alarm, the voice of Mr. Van Natten traveled through the PA system and began to explain the situation to everyone on campus. Huddled together underneath desks, students listened to the principal announce the school would be evacuated amid threats with the assistance of local law enforcement.

Administrative staff and police officers circulated the campus to unlock classrooms and instruct those inside to orderly exit to the front of the school where they would receive further instructions.

Not only were Kennedy students involved in the evacuation, but eighth graders from neighboring schools were touring the campus  during the process of investigating the threat. Members of the Link Crew, a group of Kennedy students that work to introduce freshman and visiting middle schoolers to the campus, claimed that the eighth grade students, that were part of their tour groups, became startled very easily.

“During the evacuation, some of the eighth graders were running out of the school because they were really scared.” stated senior Jalon Cummings, describing the process of clearing the school campus amid internal threats.  

Out in front of the school, patrol cars lined the length of Gloria Drive as the Kennedy student body, staff, and potential incoming students moved towards the intersection with Florin Road. The officers on the scene asked students to continue moving until they reached the Elks Lodge, on Riverside Boulevard.

Brett Williams, a social science teacher, described his experience during the evacuation process  “ They [students] responded well as far as I am concerned. They hustled out of the classroom, and most headed out. I was not pleased with at least one who hung back next to the school awaiting a ride, but understand people were just trying to find safety and escape as best as they could. I just feel leaving the premises of a threat of an attack was a better move.”

Up until this point, the group had remained relatively calm. Some students even filmed the event and posted the footage to their social media stories. Conversations could be heard,  throughout the crowd, in which students discussed that they felt as if the threats were falsified and posed no harm to anyone.

Once across Gloria, a group of students splintered from the majority of fleeing people , crossing Florin and continued aside their counterparts on the other side of the street. Not knowing what to do, a number of students followed, even though teachers advise against the action.

Now on both sides of the street, the group embarked on their exodus to the rendezvous point assigned to them. While most found a safe haven in the Elks Lodge, some students remained out in front of the school or stopped in the nearby shopping centers until their rides arrived.

With rain falling from overhead, the doors to the Elks Lodge were opened, only to be engulfed by a flood of concerned students and accompanying adults. Those inside the building, quickly searched for loved ones and checked in with teachers and other adults to see what information they could uncover.

District personnel, police, and Kennedy staff worked to organize an orderly pickup point for parents.  The visiting eighth graders were assisted in finding the bus that would return to their home school.

“It was a hectic situation but I believe Link Crew [and the staff] managed it and the eighth graders were able to go back to their school’s safely.” stated Link Crew tour guide and junior Hadia Lalagul.

With District officials, such as Superintendent Aguilar, and police on the scene assisting, most of the student body was able to make it home safely within the hour. However not all students were so fortunate as too leave in a hastily manner, with some staying beyond noon. For those students that were stranded at the Elks Lodge, the Kennedy staff worked to get the reduced-price lunches, traditionally offered on campus during lunch, in order to feed those not picked up by parents.

Not only did the Kennedy staff work tirelessly to evacuate students off campus and feed them lunches, they also worked to make sure students were safely transported home and had all they needed while at the Elks Lodge. Many teachers spoke with students in an attempt to comfort them in a time of distress.

Alongside teachers and other adults, students made sure that they did their part in assisting the situation. A number of exceptional youth jumped into action, by accounting for students, easing nerves, and working with their classmates in order to make sure they found all those they needed to.

Some students worked with one another to find an EpiPen for one of their classmates, without one of their own, having an allergic reaction. The group fortunately found one in time, allowing the distressed student to receive the attention they needed. Another student worked with guardians with linguistic barriers, and was able to translate for District personnel, who worked to find the missing student.

Regardless of whether or not anyone at school was in danger, the Kennedy campus came together in a time of need, making sure to carry one another through the tumultuous experience. Students, teachers, school officials, and Sacramento PD worked with one another to ensure the safety of the Kennedy community.

With students home safely, and the school completely cleared, the Sacramento Police Department issued a statement declaring the campus secured. Later in the afternoon, students and teachers began to funnel back to school so that they might pick up items left on campus and access their vehicles left in the parking lots.

After having the campus cleared of threats and cars returned to their owners, the school once again found itself empty. Police Chief Daniel Hahn, accompanied by PD spokespersons, stayed at Kennedy High to speak to local media outlets in a press conference. District spokesman, Alex Barrios, and Kennedy Principal, David Van Natten, were also present and available for questioning.

Across Sacramento, Mayor Darrell Steinberg held a press conference on the steps of City Hall, speaking to the issue of school safety, at the same time as the one occurring at Kennedy.Though the event had been planned prior to the 16th, it coincidentally coincided with the evacuation of Kennedy High.  During his speech, he made it very clear that he supported gun control and the students advocating for it around the nation.

With the event happening just hours before his press conference, the Mayor spoke directly to the impact that such threats have on schools and their communities, stating “We need to deal with the impact on students and the teachers, and the entire school family when these sorts of things happen because they’re traumatic.”

Steinberg called for an increase of assistive services in schools, whether it be an increase in counseling staff or community outreach, that would foster a supportive safety net. SCUSD Superintendent Jorge Aguilar decided to send additional support staff to the Kennedy campus.

Upon returning to school the following week, crisis counselors made themselves available to students and teachers, throughout the day, to aid them through the healing process. In addition to the therapists provided by the district, Kennedy teachers made the effort to make sure students felt welcomed on their return, by providing a cup of hot chocolate, free of charge, at each campus entrance.

Students were dealing with the emotions surrounding the evacuation as well as an additional incident, that occured over the weekend. The administration once again found itself reporting to families that a incident with a firearm had taken place.

The evening of Sunday, March 18, a Kennedy student had posted a video of loaded magazine to their Snapchat story. The footage quickly was recorded, by other students, and posted to Instagram as well as sent to the administration and police department.

After a thorough investigation conducted by the police, it was determined that a threat had not been made to any students at Kennedy, and that the video was merely a display on the student’s behalf to show off his weaponry. Though no threat had been directly made, the student was arrested on charges of possession of an illegal firearm. The student’s father was also arrested for possession of an illegal firearm as well as child endangerment.

Continuing with the gruesome pattern, the arrest made on the 18th was not the last of the gun related incidents to happen involving the JFK campus. Shortly before Easter break, on Friday, March 23, another threat was made to a Kennedy student.

Emailing the student body and their families to update them on the ongoing situation, Van Natten issued the statement “My team and I continue to work with the police to follow up on the safety threats already reported, including one brought to our attention earlier today by a student who received an anonymous phone call with a non-specific threat. While such occurrences certainly create an inconvenience on campus, I continue to communicate information about any safety threat that comes forward, large or small, in an effort to be as transparent as possible.”

Returning after the week long vacation, JFK High School found itself free of any threats, thus ending the long established pattern of behavior. Though the threats have dissipated from campus, the activism, on both sides, and concern still remain a prevalent theme within the community.

“Safety is of the utmost priority.” reassured Principal Van Natten, when speaking about the school’s measures towards securing the campus.

The administration is currently working alongside law enforcement and the district to address the problems at hand.  School policies, ranging from the dress code to campus security process and future evacuation plans, are being taken into consideration and reviewed to best secure the safety of the students and teachers.

The Comprehensive School Safety Plan, or the CSSP as it is better known, is a set of guidelines put in place by the district to best provide safety to its students. Both by the school itself and the District’s Office of Safe Schools, the CSSP is continuously under reviewed, having improvements adopted whenever determined by those administering the program.

“With regard to community building, we are reviewing and examining all possibilities.” stated Van Natten, who also encouraged students on campus to come to him with ideas of how to do so. Van Natten also insured that those students still emotional wounded by the events of the last month could seek assistance via the district counselors as well as the counselors, psychologists, and nurse on campus for the benefit of students.

Alongside the progress made by the administration, students are continuing to play a large role in the problem solving process. Students have organized events to further the respective causes that they have been fighting to promote. Junior Hana Ruiz hosted an event, known as #NeverAgain, where students and teachers were able to discuss their opinions on the evacuation and other threats related to the school. The discussion occurred on April 4, from 3:30 to 5:00 pm in the auditorium.

Junior Kobi Posey, similar to his classmate, has taken to activism. Posey authored a petition, demanding punishment for politicians taking donations from the NRA as well as stricter gun control measures, that he has passed around to his fellow students in order to receive signatures.

The work done by students, staffs, and others involved has lead to much discussion and will hopefully result in the secured safety of our schools and communities. With the events of the last month, Kennedy High School has found itself at a transformative crossroads, having to address the ever-present themes of bullying, gun violence, and mental health on campus. Regardless of what happens going forward, the JFK campus must come together to foster a sense of community and better prepare for the future.

 

 

 

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