Teen Town Hall to focus on school safety, gun violence

Three Jefferson City High School teenagers have organized a listening session this week to make sure students' voices are included in discussions about gun violence and school safety so they and their peers can have confidence they are protected.

A "Teen Town Hall" scheduled from 5:30-7 p.m. Thursday at the Boys & Girls Club of Jefferson City "will be an avenue for local teens to discuss their concerns about school shootings and gun violence," according to a news release about the event.

Any local teenager is welcome to attend, but the general adult public is not invited because the event is designed for teenagers to have a voice.

Students have invited local school board members, Jefferson City Public Schools officials, local politicians and school resource officers to listen.

"We want acknowledgment we have valuable concerns," JCHS rising junior Genesis Grinston said. Fellow JCHS rising junior Joya Melvin and JCHS rising senior Da'Chanel Sutton agreed they as students haven't gotten a sense there's an effective emergency plan in place to deal with a school shooting.

"We don't want that fear factor," Melvin said - fear of the unknown.

The three JCHS students said the killings by firearm of 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February motivated them to do more than talk about concerns with their friends.

Sutton said most teachers generally have veered away from talking about the subject, given its sensitivity.

Since the Parkland shooting, JCPS has enacted or expanded several security measures: set up trial tests of additional electronic security and alert systems in certain schools before those systems are implemented districtwide; rolled out a new package of mandatory Safe Schools electronic training for faculty and staff; budgeted for an additional school resource officer to patrol elementary schools; scheduled law enforcement-led active shooter training to be held at each of the district's buildings this coming school year; and opted to hold active shooter drills once a quarter instead of once a semester.

The three student organizers of Thursday's town hall said they don't remember any recent drills, but they do remember past responses to perceived emergencies that seemed unorganized.

Sutton said a teacher of hers asked students questions in January about emergency procedures, but Grinston and Melvin said they didn't have an opportunity like that.

JCPS sent out surveys to families, faculty and staff in March to gauge the community's concerns and how people rated the safety of local schools.

Grinston, Melvin and Sutton said they hadn't been aware of the survey.

The 20-question survey got a roughly 22 percent response rate that represented more than 1,900 JCPS students. Overall, 79 percent of families who responded said their student feels safe at school, and 73 percent believe their student is safe at school.

Fifty-six percent of the survey responses came from the elementary level, with the rest evenly split between middle and high school, meaning the families of 400-some high school students were represented in the survey results. The district had 2,489 high school students enrolled last year, according to preliminary data from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Less than 69 percent of all the families who did respond to the survey agreed or strongly agreed with a statement on the survey that "the school has adequate resources to help students in an emergency or crisis" - one of nine questions that got a similar rating the district identified as opportunities for improvement.

Also in March, dozens of Jefferson City-area students participated in a school walkout that grew out of a national youth-led movement against gun violence powered by student activists from Stoneman Douglas in Parkland. After the walkouts, Susan Cook-Williams worked with local students to get their input on designing Cole County Youth Day.

Grinston, Melvin and Sutton's work to organize Thursday's Teen Town Hall spun out of those discussions after the three JCHS students shared their concerns about school safety and the lack of response they said they were getting from adults at school.

Cook-Williams is a local representative of the national nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise, which is led by family members of the 26 young students and staff who were slain by firearm at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012. She said Thursday that 3rd Ward Jefferson City Council member Ken Hussey and she have helped guide the students to be able to create the town hall.

Grinston, Melvin and Sutton said the event is open to any teenager in the area - not just those from Jefferson City or JCHS. Cook-Williams added their focus is on the high school age group.

JCPS Board of Education President Steve Bruce and JCPS Transportation, Safety and Security Coordinator Frank Underwood will attend, too. JCPS Superintendent Larry Linthacum is out of the office this week.

Bruce said it's important to listen to students, adding he knows the local community is not immune from having a tragedy happen here.

"If you care about kids and want to be sure they're safe, that's the common ground," he said of what's important, regardless of how people approach the issues of gun violence and school safety.

Underwood said he's looking forward to hearing what's on students' minds.

"I don't think we're going to hear anything that we aren't already trying to take care of or are taking care of," he added.

Cook-Williams said the Jefferson City Police Department told her the department was working to have two officers at the event, and students reached out to the offices of Sen. Roy Blunt, Sen. Claire McCaskill and Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer.

Cook-Williams said McCaskill's office would send a representative in the senator's place due to the Senate being in session, and there had not yet been word from the other congressional leaders.

The student organizers have requested reporters not be present during the discussion, in addition to the general adult public, "to honor the students' wishes to create a safe space for youth to discuss such a difficult topic," according to the news release.

Student organizers will hold a short news conference after the event to share ideas that were discussed and what accomplishments they hope stem from the event.

"We're hoping it's not a one and done," Cook-Williams said.

A question for teenagers who attend will be what they want to see from future town halls, Hussey said.

Sutton said she has spoken with JCHS Activities Director Chad Rizner about starting a Students Standing for School Safety club.

"We're not going to be able to host a town hall every two weeks," she said.

She also mentioned the idea of having a "Say Something" week - a program sponsored by Sandy Hook Promise that "teaches students, grades 6-12, how to look for warning signs, signals and threats, especially in social media, of an individual who may be a threat to themselves or others and to say something to a trusted adult to get help," according to its website.

Bruce said he hopes to hear teenagers' thoughts on identifying fellow students who need attention and help, as students know perhaps better than faculty or staff what's happening in the student body.

JCHS students who spoke to the News Tribune in March discussed a need to find ways to deal with problems students face in their homes that can lead to violent acts. They also said more respect should be given to individuals no matter their race, sex or economic background so there would be more understanding of what people are dealing with in their everyday lives.

While Bruce said upper-grade-level teachers have had naturally occurring conversations with their students after school shootings, "I haven't seen a forum like this pop up before," he added of Thursday's event.

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