Students across the country are using one especially significant date to demand lawmakers take action to end gun violence and school shootings. To mark the 19-year anniversary of the Columbine shooting and push lawmakers to pass stricter gun control, students across the country walked out of class at 10 a.m. local time Friday for the rest of the school day. Columbine survivors say the National School Walkout is an inspiring example of how a new generation of students is making their voices heard, and they're eagerly anticipating those students getting results through the ballot box.
"It takes guts to stand up and speak out and be angry and to do it at such a young age is really inspiring," Columbine survivor Samantha Haviland tells Bustle. "These students are pointing out to us that we're failing at protecting them."
Now a director of counseling in Denver's public school system, Haviland was 16 years old at the time of the Columbine shooting. "I am so proud of them," she said of the high schoolers currently taking action. "I think we’re learning as a nation that activism is where our politics are most influenced."
"These students have experienced something that's significant and their voices do matter.
Although many of the students now advocating for stricter gun control measures as part of the National School Walkout weren't even born when two students killed 13 people at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in 1999, their lives have been significantly impacted by that deadly massacre. Known as the Columbine generation, today's high school students have practiced active shooter drills since they were in kindergarten because of what happened at Columbine. According to the San Diego Tribune, there have been 85 school shootings since Columbine, including deadly massacres at Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and, more recently, Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
Columbine survivor Heather Martin says she refrains from getting political because of her position as CEO of The Rebels Project, a nonprofit founded by Columbine survivors to provide support to other survivors of mass shootings. But she too tells Bustle that she's excited to see the movement that Parkland students began earlier this year continue to grow.
"Fortunately for all of us [the Parkland survivors' experience] has led to this conversation and a continuing conversation, which in turn is, I think, empowering other students to use their voices and I think it's amazing," Martin says. "I think the movement is amazing. I'm all for empowering students and young adults and children to use their voices to help make a change."
Retired Columbine High School principal Frank DeAngelis applauds the student activists taking a stand against gun violence, but wants to see them turn that passion into action by heading to the polls when they become eligible to vote.
"What they've started right now is a groundswell but it has got to continue," DeAngelis tells Bustle. "I think the important thing is the follow up... I hope that they don't get discouraged if some of the laws that they are hoping to change don't change. They can't give up hope."
As students have advocated for stricter gun control and safer schools, critics have attempted to diminish their activism by accusing them of being naive and claiming that they've been manipulated to serve as mouthpieces of the left. Columbine survivors argue that the students have a vested interest in changing gun laws and deserve to be heard.
Austin Eubanks tells Bustle that arguments dismissing the students as mouthpieces are "completely inappropriate." "These were conversations that were happening in their politics class before the tragedy even occurred," he says, adding that "it shows a real lack of empathy for what occurred because who better to listen to than somebody who has been directly affected by something like this."
Haviland echoes a similar sentiment. "On so many levels that's maybe one of the most asinine arguments I've ever heard," she says. "These students have experienced something that's significant and their voices do matter. Their experiences do matter and how appropriate of them to use their voices in a community where adults are not using theirs."
Using social media platforms, grassroots organizing tactics, and the media available to them, students around the country have kept gun control in the national political discussion for more than two months now. And Friday's National School Walkout isn't likely to be the last of their activism. Zachary Cartaya, another Columbine survivor, expressed pride in how civically engaged students had become in the wake of the Parkland shooting.
"I am so, so proud of these kids for getting out there and finding a platform for their grief," Cartaya, who also works with The Rebels Project, tells Bustle. "As a political science person, voting is always a thing for me... so, I'm so excited to see them get active and start the conversation."
While these Columbine survivors were honored to be remembered by a generation that has grown up in the shadows of the tragedy that rocked their school nearly two decades ago, DeAngelis, the former Columbine principal, says he hopes students consider honoring Columbine victims with something beyond walkouts as well. While stressing that he supports the students' recent swell of activism, he tells Bustle, "I do not want to see kids walking out every April 20."
"The best way that you can memorialize the 13 that lost their lives [at Columbine] and everyone who was impacted in our community, we would love to see a day of service," he says.