Photo: Justin Papp / Hearst Connecticut Media
NEW CANAAN — While thousands of students nationwide walked out of class last Friday against gun violence, those at New Canaan High School took a different approach to addressing school safety.
On April 21, the first meeting of the Fairfield County Youth Empowerment Conference, organized by New Canaan juniors Kathleen Reeves, 16, and Chase Pellegrini de Paur, 17, convened at Saxe Middle School. The conference brought together roughly 15 Fairfield County groups from as far as Bethel and Stratford to engage in open discussions on four topics, one of which was gun legislation.
“We were inspired in the wake of Parkland and young voices coming out and wanting to talk in a way that wasn’t divisive,” Reeves said. “We wanted to create an atmosphere where people could discuss these issues and get a sense of what each other’s views are and why they think that way without having to separate each other.”
The conference is one way in which Reeves, Pellegrini de Paur and other student leaders at New Canaan High hope to continue the momentum gained after an estimated 1,000 students participated in the March 14 walkout.
To plan the original walkout, Pellegrini de Paur, in his capacity as junior class president, worked with school administrators to ensure the safety of students involved. Administrators, Reeves and Pellegrini de Paur said, were supportive from a distance. Many parents and community members, on the other hand, expressed anger at the actions of the student activists via social media, which the students became aware of in the wake of the protest.
According to Reeves, parents were concerned about the protest’s ties to the National Women’s March, which used its platform to advertise and organize the March 14 walkout. By walking out, Reeves said parents were worried students might be unwittingly supporting that organization’s stance on politically charged issues. Student organizers heard of concerns from parents that students not wanting to participate would be ostracized, or otherwise forced to protest, and that walking out would not effectively bring about change.
After learning of these grievances, Reeves and Pellegrini de Paur decided to adapt new ways of protest. They said the negative response has not affected the momentum of the student movement.
“It just has taken different forms. I think it inspired a lot of people to be more vocal. I think a lot of people got upset when they heard there was resentment in the community,” Reeves said.
Since the March protest, objectives have shifted slightly.
“Because we’re juniors and seniors, a big goal is getting people who are eligible to vote registered,” Pellegrini de Paur said.
The League of Women Voters visited the school this month to register students. In lieu of a walkout last Friday, Reeves and organizers instead set up booths in the school with templated letters to send to state senators and representatives, urging enhanced gun legislation. A second meeting of the Fairfield Youth Empowerment Conference has not been scheduled, but Reeves and Pellegrini de Paur said they hope to continue to spread the word and widen their network via social media.
“I think especially for kids our age, school shootings and mass shooting in general have been something that have really marked our childhood and our generation,” Reeves said. “I hear adults talking about how they specifically remember 9/11 happening and how that was a change in the political atmosphere of their generation. I think for our generation, that’s what this is.”
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