Gracie and Clara Taub, both sophomores at East High School in Denver, speak at the Colorado Capitol as part of a march they led with Students Demand Action following gun violence in their school. (Photo courtesy of Vic Bartkavage)
Student leaders across the Denver metro area want their voices to be heard by the adults making school-safety decisions as they balance being high school students and consistently advocating for gun reform.
Students Demand Action groups have formed at multiple high schools across the city in the last year amid increasing gun violence burdening teens and schools, particularly at Denver East High School. Hundreds of Denver Public Schools students and some from surrounding districts have marched to the Colorado Capitol to testify in favor of gun reform and press legislators on how they plan to keep students in schools safe.
This school year alone, East High has seen four gun-related incidents involving its students: A freshman at East was shot outside the neighboring Carla Madison Recreation Center. East was one of several Colorado schools targeted by “swatting” in the fall. Student Luis Garcia died after he was shot in his car in the East parking lot. Student Austin Lyle shot two faculty members during a mandatory pat down at East, and was later found dead with a ghost gun next to his body.
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Gracie and Clara Taub, both sophomores at East High School, started a chapter of Students Demand Action last year and have watched it grow immensely, with about 90 people in the club now. Clara said that while the reason behind the club’s growth is sad, it’s powerful to bring together and amplify the student voice. Students Demand Action is a national initiative for high school and college students to advocate for gun violence prevention, with more than 600 groups formed since the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
“I think it’s really important to organize that student voice because it is such a unique perspective and something that lawmakers really listen to,” Clara said. “… Seeing a 16-year-old coming out of a meeting with a senator that just slammed the door in their face saying, ‘Give me a few years and I’ll be in your seat,’ that’s like the coolest thing ever.”
The twin sisters have been advocating gun reform since the Parkland shooting, when they were in fifth grade and Gracie organized a walkout at their school. Now that they’ve seen gun violence harm their own community, they’ve led multiple student marches to the Capitol to talk to legislators and testify at bill hearings as co-presidents of Students Demand Action.
“I’m really grateful to have someone by my side who’s as passionate as me,” Gracie said of her sister. “We’ve been working together on everything our whole lives, so it was sort of natural that we did this together. I’m also grateful that, through being a leader in this club, I’ve come to know other leaders as well … other people who are passionate.”
I know every kid at East has an escape plan for every classroom that they’re in just in case. That’s something that kids are being trained to do now, not by their teachers, just by their environment.
– Clara Taub
While East has seen recent incidents of gun violence, other high schools within Denver Public Schools are getting involved, too. Gracie said that after the most recent shooting at East, they had students from five or six schools joining them, along with teachers. The student leaders hope to have a district-wide Students Demand Action meeting soon.
“We don’t know why it’s happening so much at East and not other schools, but it’s not only happening at East — (gun violence) is happening in all our communities, and it doesn’t mean that it won’t happen to other schools,” Gracie said. “I think that’s a fear that we all have, so uniting together is really important, and I think that message has really gotten through to students of a lot of other schools.”
‘Sad and angry’
Agnes Holena, a sophomore at Cherry Creek High School in Greenwood Village, found out about Students Demand Action through her role in her school’s student Senate and started a chapter with two of her peers in November. She said the organization isn’t about politics, rather it’s about safety.
“Since I’ve started going to such a big high school, shootings have been a genuine worry of mine,” Holena said. “When I leave my classroom to go get water during class, I always think about ‘Where will I go if somebody were to walk in,’ and I just feel like that’s not the way I should feel or any other students should feel and that this is something that needs to be talked about.”
Holena said it makes sense that more students are engaging with Students Demand Action at East because of how recently they’ve seen the consequences of gun violence, but she doesn’t want her peers to sit around and wait for something bad to happen at their school before deciding to take action.
“My safety is more of a priority than my homework, but it makes me really, really, really sad and angry to see that this is what we have to worry about,” Holena said. “I’d rather have to worry about my license or my homework rather than dying in school.”
Solana Blakely is a senior at George Washington High School in Denver who started a Students Demand Action chapter alongside some peers at her school. She said gun violence is a universal issue, and it’s important for other schools to join in East’s efforts, because there’s strength in numbers. Every time there’s news of a school shooting, Blakely said most students wonder what would have happened if it was at their school, because every school is at risk.
“If it’s just one person that’s protesting or walking out, nobody else is going to get excused from school, the news is not going to cover it, and we need as many eyes on us as possible,” Blakely said. “Even though the two recent events at East didn’t happen at George Washington, it hits really close to home because we’re all in DPS … It could have just as easily been us.”
Holena agreed that larger groups of students bring more attention to their cause. For schools outside of the city like Cherry Creek, supporting East shows that students across the metro area are united in advocating gun reform and safety for all their schools.
“When there’s more people involved, people pay attention, and when there’s more students, legislators see that these are kids,” Holena said. “It’s different when there’s a lot of adults coming together, but when it’s the kids who are in school and it’s the kids who are scared about going to school, I think that really calls for attention.”
Standing up to the adults
Clara said she feels supported in her advocacy efforts at East High, but she doesn’t like how politicized discussions on safety in schools can get with the Denver school board and legislators. While she respects “the other side,” she said at this point gun violence is not political when kids are dying. Clara said she’s heard legislators back up their arguments with “facts” that are “blatantly wrong and blatantly offensive.”
“We agree that violence is wrong, and while that seems like a very low bar, some of these senators are not willing to find common ground,” Clara said. “These representatives and senators that we’re talking to do not have the maturity or the responsibility that these 16 year olds are capable of … It’s really empowering to see that we’re raising this generation that is mature and responsible and can see the other side but also fight for what they believe in.”
Gun violence used to be just one part of a student’s education experience, Clara said, but not anymore. While school shootings make up a small part of the deaths attributed to gun violence, students and staff think about it daily.
“We go to school with the fear every day that there could be a lockdown, there could be an active shooter … and yet we still go to school,” Clara said. “… I know every kid at East has an escape plan for every classroom that they’re in just in case. That’s something that kids are being trained to do now, not by their teachers, just by their environment.”
Gracie said the average student experience when it comes to gun violence in schools has changed so much since the leaders now making decisions on guns were in school. She said this seems like the only explanation for why some lawmakers won’t budge on gun violence prevention, though she second-guesses this logic knowing many of them also have kids in school today.
“If only they could be in a classroom when the lockdown announcement comes on, or if only they could be in this assembly with all their classmates and read the news that there’s been a shooting at our school,” Gracie said. “I want to say that if they went to school and they experienced all that, change would happen immediately, but we know of course, it’s more complicated than that.”
Perry Honey Hochstadt, also a sophomore at East, spent his spring break with family in Washington D.C. and saw the visit as an opportunity to engage with members of Colorado’s federal delegation to ask for their help on gun reform.
While he didn’t get to meet with any elected officials themselves, he met with staff from several Colorado officials, including Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper; Rep. Diana DeGette, a Denver Democrat; Rep. Joe Neguse, a Lafayette Democrat; Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Silt Republican; Rep. Ken Buck, a Windsor Republican; and Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Springs Republican. He wasn’t met with promises or answers from each office, but he made sure to ask each team what they plan to do to keep him safe in school.
“All I had to do to get these meetings with people and make my voice heard was just to try,” Honey Hochstadt said. “All of us can do that and we all should. Everyone should be calling their local legislators and letting them know that this is a top priority that needs to be fixed now.”
It’s an everyday struggle to fight for education and to go to school so that you can grow up and get a job and help protect the kids of the future when you're not even sure that you'll make it.
– Solana Blakely
For Holena, engaging with the Legislature has been intimidating, but she’s found herself prioritizing it because of the chance she might change just one lawmaker’s mind.
“I feel like I had an impact and I felt like I kind of reached the hearts of some of the representatives and really got them to support bills that they maybe otherwise would have skipped over,” Holena said.
Blakely said she wishes more adults understood how difficult it is for students to find motivation and plan their futures when they are scared for their lives at school. Sometimes she said she feels like she’s living in “a dystopian world” amid the continuous stream of gun violence disrupting the school system.
“It’s an everyday struggle to fight for education and to go to school so that you can grow up and get a job and help protect the kids of the future when you’re not even sure that you’ll make it,” Blakely said.
While some legislators have supported and encouraged Students Demand Action leaders to push their limits in their advocacy until change is made, Gracie thinks others too often make excuses for why they can’t support certain gun-related bills or why a state bill to ban assault weapons isn’t being prioritized. The Colorado Legislature has a strong Democratic majority, and four bills intended to curb gun violence have already passed both chambers this session. But to Clara, these bills are still “pretty basic gun sense.” She wants to see a state bill regulating ghost guns introduced this session.
Clara said her generation is learning the flaws of the legislative process and is taking notes on how they will change it when it’s their turn to lead.
“I have hope, because we’ve been able to have these productive conversations, but also frustration because I feel like the urgency is maybe not getting through to everyone,” Gracie said.
The DPS Board of Education decided to bring back two armed school resource officers for each high school in the district through the end of the school year after the latest instance of gun violence at East. But some students worry this decision was also too politically motivated, as they say the decision to remove SROs in the first place was, too.
Gracie said police shouldn’t be in schools, but she hopes the district can work to find more effective, permanent safety solutions during the temporary return of SROs.
“It’s a scary thing that they’re in our schools,” Clara said, “but I think right now it’s the best decision, just because we do have to address our actual safety and then address our perception of safety, because right now we are inherently unsafe.”
Blakely agreed that “the answer is not more guns,” and she said that while the board’s intentions behind bringing back SROs were good, she views the move as “a Band-Aid over a bullet hole” and hopes to see better solutions emerge soon.
Editor’s note: Captions on photos in this story were updated to correctly credit Vic Bartkavage.
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