KHS students form new campus safety awareness group
● By Richard Gaw
On the afternoon of Feb. 14, 14-year-old Ben Strusowski, a freshman at Kennett High School, came home from school and received a text from a friend that read, “Turn on the news.”
He then saw it for the first time and with it, came a fear that has not left him since: Students and administrators at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fl. had just been murdered by a lone gunman.
Strusowski remained riveted to the television screen, while combing social media and the internet for any information he could find. Miraculously, he connected with Parkland students, who sent him graphic videos of the shooting that showed bloodied school hallways where dead teenagers lay strewn about. He watched a video that showed the progression of the shooter.
“My first thought was, 'Oh, another school shooting,' and in a way, this sounds terrible, but my feeling was, 'This happened, and again, nothing will be done about it,'” Strusowski said. “At first I thought it couldn't be as bad as Sandy Hook or Columbine or Virginia Tech, until I saw that this guy hit all corners of Building 1200 (at Parkland]. It was surreal that it happened again, and that in the aftermath, nothing seemed to be getting done. I wanted to take action, but I didn't know how.”
Mia Gruce, 15, a friend and classmate of Strusowski's, saw the incident unfold before her on television when she returned home from school.
“My first reaction was that of horror,” Gruce said. “I was completely desensitized. I thought, 'It's another shooting, and it won't do much to [eventually bring awareness to the epidemic]. You hear of another shooting and you begin to think, 'That's become the norm.'”
A third classmate, 15-year-old Lily Goodwin, saw the Parkland massacre on social media.
“I really didn't talk about it with my family, until a few days later, but I had already begun to learn about it and doing research on it,” she said.
Shortly after the carnage stopped, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz confessed to the shooting, and was charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder.
It was the deadliest school shooting in United States history, and it soon became clear to Strusowski, Gruce and Goodwin that the general demographic of the group they belong to was no longer being defined by aspirations, but by a continuing violence that had fully penetrated schools and turned them from sanctuaries into shooting ranges.
They were now part of the Mass Shooting Generation, and they decided to do something about it.
On May 6, Strusowski created a petition and then called Gruce and Goodwin, who signed on to assist him. He has since been in contact with Parkland students who survived the shootings, for support and assistance. He is creating a social media page, “Keeping Our Classrooms Safe.”
Strusowski has also taken his case to the office of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf – he hasn't received a response yet – and begun correspondence with Lori Alhadeff, the daughter of Alyssa Alhadeff, who was shot and killed at Parkland, whom he said formed the “building blocks” of the student movement at Kennett High School.
On May 17, Strusowski met with Kennett High School Principal Dr. Jeremy Hritz, Officer Jeremiah Boyer of the Kennett Borough Police Department and Dr. Barry Tomasetti, superintendent of the Kennett Consolidated School District, where he spelled out the following initiatives – in the form of a petition – for the school district:
To enact “Alyssa’s Law” in all classrooms in the school district. The law, named in honor of Alyssa Alhadeff, who died in the shooting at Parkland, is expected to be signed into New Jersey state law soon. It requires all public elementary and secondary schools be equipped with a panic alarm for use in a school security emergencies including evacuations, lockdowns or active shooter situations.
The installation of bullet proof windows in classrooms.
Make all emergency drills in schools unannounced, to better assure that teachers and students take the drills more seriously.
Identify where each classroom's “safe zone” is located, with red tape.
“Whatever the administration of our school and district is willing to do, we would like these initiatives to be put in place by the start of the 2018-19 school year,” Gruce said.
In addition to having safety measures firmly in place, the Kennett Consolidated School District has also created programs and events that address school safety, from a preventive standpoint. The Student Assistance Program (SAP) at Kennett Middle School and the Kennett Intervention Program (KIT) at Kennett High School provide additional resources for students and their parents who are in need of support, and is staffed by trained social workers, counselors, teachers, administrators and nurses.
In addition, teachers in the district are trained in suicide prevention, opioid training and mandated reporting which, in accordance with Pa. Act 126 (2013), requires that all school and independent contractors of school entities provide child abuse recognition and reporting training to all employees, including contracted substitute teachers who have direct contact with children.
Several years ago, Dr. Terri Erbacher, an author, school psychologist for 15 years and professor of psychology at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, met with school staff in order to provide the district with a screening instrument that counselors and social workers can use to asses students at risk.
On April 17, the district offered a presentation by Minding Your Mind, an organization that provides mental health education to adolescents, teens and young adults, their parents, teachers and school administrators, and the community, in order to reduce the stigma and destructive behaviors often associated with mental health issues. Minding Your Mind student presentations help students learn to recognize the warning signs of mental illness in themselves and their friends, and teach students that mental health issues and illnesses are common and treatable.
Strusowski said that he has gathered 400 signatures of support for the proposed initiatives, which form the basis of a three-student movement that takes its ideology and motivation from the student leaders from Parkland – Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, most prominent among them – who have emerged as galvanizing voices in the effort to enact tougher gun laws, and eliminate NRA funding for politicians.
“It all kind of came together, and it told me that I don't have to sit back,” Gruce added. “I am going to be voting in 2020, so there's no reason for me to feel that I have no part in this.”
The early efforts of this student-led movement has gathered a lot of student supporters, including a student and her father, who are licensed gun owners. In an issue that has drawn strong opinions on both sides, however, they have heard from a few doubters.
“Some [students we've spoken with] think that the price of this movement is too high, but the prices are 17 lives, 26 lives, 32 lives and 13 lives – that's the amount of deaths in each of the school shootings in recent years,” Strusowski said.
Despite the naysayers, Strusowski, Gruce and Goodwin are determined that the first step of their initiative has been accomplished – a series of proposals put forth to the school district – it's just the beginning of a campaign that will likely continue through their remaining three years of high school.
They're willing to put themselves on the line for the cause.
“We are the first generation who has grown up from kindergarten to the 12th grade in high school, knowing that one the first day that this is where you go and where you hide and how you line up and stay away from windows and from the closest entrance of an active shooter,” Gruce said. “We're going to be the first generation to really push for school safety. Maybe we won't be able to change the system as teenagers, but action now will allow us to eventually change it when we get into our early 20s.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.