by Olivia Martin
ROELAND PARK — In the past 19 years, over 150,000 students at more than 170 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on their campuses.
On April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting that left 13 dead, some 230 Bishop Miege students organized and participated in a silent procession and moment of prayer to raise awareness of gun violence in schools.
Many of the students and faculty were dressed in blaze orange, the color hunters wear to warn other hunters not to shoot — a national symbol of the anti-gun violence movement.
“This is the type of tragedy that sometimes leaves people in the state of hopelessness and despair,” said sophomore organizer David Porras in a moment of reflection during the service. “With these traumatizing incidents, many . . . [feel] trapped in a hallway that seems to have no way out.
“For the Catholic or Christian, this is a pro-life matter.”
Porras was one of the four principal student leaders of the event, along with seniors Michaela Farrell, Parker Lane and Madeleine Rafael.
“Every time I see something on the news about a school shooting, it breaks my heart,” said Rafael. “Being Catholic, we find that every life is sacred.”
Students participated in a silent procession, then gathered in the gymnasium for a prayer service honoring the lives of each of the 17 victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, which occurred on Feb. 14 this year in Parkland, Florida.
Mayor Mike Kelly of Roeland Park briefly addressed the students as well, commending them on exercising their First Amendment right of free speech.
“I remember [Columbine] like it was yesterday,” began Kelly. “I remember the fear and hesitation in coming to school. I’m very proud of students nationwide, standing up saying enough is enough.”
“I know that you want more than thoughts and prayers,” he added.
In addition to pledging the best police force in the state, the mayor promised students an open door and open inbox at city hall anytime they would like to share concerns, ideas, thoughts or solutions.
“We are here to encourage you to take the next step,” he said. “It’s voting — that’s the best way you can exercise your advocacy.”
Faculty sponsor and theology teacher Steve Engler called the students’ attention to the opportunity to take further action that day. Students were given the option to write a message to their Missouri or Kansas state representative on blaze orange postcards, expressing their concerns regarding gun violence in schools.
“The postcards send the message our faith leaders have given us,” said Engler. “This is what our United States Catholic bishops have called us to do.”
Urging an increase in the minimum age for gun ownership, universal background checks for all gun purchases, a change in law regarding bump stocks, and increased resources in identifying and ministering to those with mental health needs are among the concrete concerns of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
In a reminder to participants, Engler said, “You’re not compelled to agree with your bishop on something like this, [but] they’re asking you to let them lead you.”
For Rafael, hearing the bishops’ advocacy for steps to decrease gun violence was very important.
“It was a huge deal to me to hear the bishops are taking mental health into [consideration] as well,” said Rafael. “Mental health is often pushed to the side.”
The procession against gun violence wasn’t limited to Bishop Miege on April 20.
Students all across the United States held “walk out” processions as a way to protest gun violence in schools.
Lane said that exercising the Catholic principle of solidarity with her schoolmates and students across the country played a significant role in her experience of the procession.
“Walking out felt really strong because we were walking in silent solidarity with each other, and that’s so different from just having a conversation or dispute,” said Lane.
For Farrell, being involved in organizing the procession was more than being part of a planning committee.
“I am here to take a stand against this senseless violence,” she said. “Jesus was very peaceful. It’s the peaceful protests that seem to [work] the best.”
“Our Catholic reflex of having processions lends itself to the national [event] of ‘walking out,’” said Engler. “The first thing the kids said when I met with them was, ‘We’re a Catholic school — we can pray for this. Other places can’t.’
“Their first instinct was to apply their faith to this.”
Freshman Daniel Fontaine attended the event because of his interest and support for the message of the procession, saying, as a Catholic, “We’re here to help everyone.”
Balancing differing opinions on guns in schools, gun ownership and policy can be difficult. But for the Bishop Miege students, respect and dialogue were always at the forefront.
“The very first thing we said to each other was that we were going to respect differences,” said Engler. “We respected differences in the way we spoke today. Respecting differences means we can dialogue.”
Father Justin Hamilton, the school’s chaplain, closed the service with a prayer for peace, begging for Christ to “instill . . . a real commitment to build a culture of peace — to be [his] love to those in most need of mercy.”