Nathalie Wagler was born a few months after the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado in 1999. Clara Bentler was born the next year.
“We’ve lived through school shootings our whole life,” Clara said.
Like tens of thousands of high school students across the country, Nathalie and Clara saw the latest high school massacre, on Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, as a tipping point. And they want to add their voices to the growing chorus demanding that something be done about gun violence in schools.
Nathalie, a senior at Billings West High, and Clara, a junior at Billings Senior High, are part of a group of about 25 students organizing a march in downtown Billings on Saturday, March 24, and a school walkout on Wednesday, March 14 — a 17-minute walkout in honor of the 17 victims in Florida.
Clara said students from the two schools (they’re working to include Skyview High, too) first got together during a snow day on Feb. 20 to talk about how they could respond to the Florida shooting.
The Billings walkouts are part of planned walkouts nationwide on March 14, and the Billings March for Our Lives is also part of a national movement. Clara and Nathalie also acknowledge receiving some help and advice from organizers of the recent Women’s March and members of the local chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
But they are adamant in stating that this was their idea and that they and other students are doing the work to put the two events together.
“This has been really independent,” Clara said. “It’s been mainly students doing everything.”
They also insist that they are not advocating banning guns, or for that matter supporting any specific solutions to gun violence in schools. That’s why they have invited Montana’s congressional delegation — Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte — to speak at a rally after the march on March 24.
“We do think school safety is not a political issue,” Clara said.
Both girls have learned about the consequences of taking a public stand on a sensitive issue. After they appeared on newscasts on KTVQ and KULR, they said, both stations’ Facebook pages lit up with hundreds of comments, many of them full of harsh, sometimes quite personal criticism.
Neither of them seemed all that bothered by the comments, though, probably because they have grown up not only with school shootings but with ubiquitous social media, and they have learned what people will say when their fingers do the talking.
Nathalie said that when she first heard of the Florida shootings, via news notifications on her phone, she accepted it with the kind of sighing resignation that has become a part of her life. But the next day, someone pulled a fire alarm at West High, as the shooter did in Florida before opening fire, and when her classroom on the second floor emptied out to leave the building, the doors to the stairwell were locked.
All at once, she said, she was seized with a terrible fear, and she realized what it must have been like in Florida, or rather, how much worse it must have been. A few days after that, she remembers hearing West High’s school resource officer — an armed police officer assigned to the school — advising students to think, as they walk the halls of West High every day, about where they would go for safety in an emergency.
“I don’t think that’s something we should have to think about as we walk from class to class,” Nathalie said. “I think that’s horrible.”
How do you not agree with that sentiment? How do we accept that as the new normal? How did we allow our failure to provide our children with a safe learning environment to become something we just shrug our shoulders over?
I have watched, as I did after earlier school shootings, the mocking videos of Second Amendment advocates, who castigate supporters of gun regulations for their ignorance regarding “assault weapon” terminology, who ask how anyone can control the millions of such weapons already in circulation, who scoff at efforts to deal with deranged killers with mere laws.
There is some foundation for all their arguments, but is the only alternative really to transform our schools into armored fortresses and our teachers into gunslinging security guards? That makes the War on Drugs sound like a winning, cost-effective program by comparison.
And here’s the thing about those pro-Second Amendment arguments: they do raise some good points, some subjects worth debating and investigating. But when our Congress prevents the Centers for Disease Control from even doing research into gun violence, what hope is there of ever arriving at a reasonable solution?
In Billings and around the country, high school students have been vilified for pushing for change on what has seemed for years to be an immovable issue. But if enough of those students are as smart and strong as Nathalie and Clara, I think we’re headed in the right direction.