The Parkland Students Aren't Going Away

American teens are shaping a new kind of debate about gun violence—but why now?

Survivors of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting arrive in Tallahassee to lobby the Florida legislature for stricter gun laws (Mark Wallheiser / AP)

The aftermath of a mass shooting in the United States can feel like an all-too-familiar play.

Act I: Some combination of grief and shock and terror ripples across the nation, accompanied by a deluge of news coverage.
Act II: Gun-control advocates leverage the moment to call for stricter laws; those who oppose such restrictions offer their thoughts and prayers to victims but argue that gun control won’t help.
Act III: the inevitable deadlock. America moves on; America forgets. Nothing changes, except for those for whom everything has changed. Public opinion on gun control remains as divided as ever.

That play is following a different script this time around. The curtain has stayed up on Act II, as survivors of what is now the deadliest high-school shooting in modern U.S. history have prevented the play from proceeding along its typical trajectory. “We call B.S.!” chanted Emma González—a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior whose face has since become a symbol for this exploding youth-led political campaign—at a rally last Saturday. Since then, the Parkland, Florida, teens’ tweets, essays, and television appearances—equal parts fierce determination and fervent agony—have been the public-facing cry of what they have dubbed the “Never Again” movement.

Countless factors could explain why their activism on gun control has so quickly evolved into a national movement. And one could be Parkland’s demographics. People in Parkland tend to be well-off. The median household income in the city is just over $128,000, according to census data, compared with less than $53,000 for the (massive) surrounding Broward County. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, or MSD, reflects this relative wealth: Fewer than 23 percent of its students during the 2015-16 school year received free or reduced-price lunch, compared with close to 64 percent of students across Broward County Public Schools.

That comparable affluence could be key to understanding why Never Again’s youth leaders seem to be building so much political clout in a debate that until now seemed impossibly stuck. (And, realistically, may still be.) It could also be key to understanding why similar efforts led by disadvantaged youth in recent years have gained little, if any, meaningful traction.

“It’s mind-blowing that while [the Parkland students] are still in the first days of dealing with trauma, anger, grief, they’re putting it toward really careful and thoughtful political and civic action—it’s just amazing,” said Meira Levinson, a Harvard Graduate School of Education professor whose research focuses on civic education and youth empowerment. “At the same time, it’s also important to recognize that other young people have done this [activism] also within days—they’re experiencing the same grief—and haven’t gotten the attention that these [Parkland] students have.”

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MSD students’ campaign started percolating on social media almost immediately after the massacre, in which 17 of their classmates and educators were murdered and many others injured. Persistent and plucky from the get-go, the teens urged President Trump to justify and rectify his inaction on gun control and lambasted the conservative pundit Tomi Lahren for insisting that any post-shooting “anti-gun” commentary was inappropriate.

It quickly became clear that these survivors were poised to spearhead a political movement whose message is so loud, and so raw, it’s continued to dominate mainstream news coverage and radio shows and even late-night comedy a week after the shooting—an unusual phenomenon in today’s real-time news environment. They’ve written haunting op-eds and delivered viral speeches; they’ve instigated rallies and prompted nationwide walkouts by students and teachers.

Now they’re planning—from their parents’ living rooms—a massive demonstration to take place in Washington, D.C., next month. The “March for Our Lives” event already has a sophisticated website with a mission statement and merch for sale—and, like the historic Women’s March last January, it is inspiring satellite protests not just across the U.S. but also across the globe. Triple-digit donations from the likes of George and Amal Clooney and Oprah are helping to make all of this possible. Donations to the march’s GoFundMe campaign have been on the rise since the effort was launched several days ago, and organizers have in turn continued to increase the funding goal. As of Friday evening, donations totaled roughly $2.3 million.

Why is there suddenly so much traction? Has the country just finally had enough with these mass shootings? Political scientists and scholars of student activism agree that the affluence of many families in Parkland plays a substantial role. Historically, affluence has often been key to gaining political leverage, and to ensuring that leverage has translated into actual policy change. “Citizens with low or moderate incomes speak with a whisper that is lost on the ears of inattentive government, while the advantaged roar with the clarity and consistency that policymakers readily heed,” reads a 2004 report by an American Political Science Association task force on inequality and democracy. U.S. senators’ voting patterns, for example, correspond far more closely with the preferences of their wealthier constituents than with those of their less-affluent ones.

It isn’t hard to see why: As detailed in a 2002 study by the political scientist Larry Bartels, compared to their lower-income counterparts, wealthy Americans are more likely to have access to information about policies and to in turn form sophisticated opinions about those policies; they’re also more likely to vote in elections and have direct contact with public officials. And of course, they’re more likely to donate to political campaigns.

These advantages seem to be relevant across age groups. Schools such as MSD—where three in four students passed some or all their AP tests during the 2009-10 school year and where participation in the gifted program was nearly twice the national rate—are far more likely than their lower-performing, under-resourced counterparts to teach kids about civic engagement. Such education might include asking students to analyze current events and political issues in classes, to engage in community service, and to participate in extracurricular activities that expose them to the inner-workings of government or public speaking.

Aspects of this instructional focus can be seen in how the Parkland students have responded to the shooting. The 17-year-old David Hogg, a student journalist, filmed and interviewed his classmates while they took shelter from the gunman—footage that, he explained in a CNN interview, he gathered in part so he could later sway politicians’ opinion on gun control. Asked about whether she’d prepared for the political activism she’s now demonstrating, Jaclyn Corin, also 17, explained to The New Yorker writer Emily Witt that a few months earlier she’d worked on a 50-page project about gun control for her AP composition-and-rhetoric-class. And as one Buzzfeed article noted, the MSD activists planning the March for Our Lives largely know each other from the school’s theater program; the skills honed in the dramatic arts—confidence, persuasive communication, creativity, stage presence—can be very useful in effective political activism.

Such opportunities are far rarer on high-poverty campuses, and poor students perform significantly worse than their more-affluent peers on the national standardized civics test. That’s compounded by more abstract barriers, like attitudes about civic life. In part because politicians often disregard their lower-income constituents, those constituents (who are predominantly black or Latino) are less likely than wealthier people to see themselves as having political power. A 2009 Pew report showed that political participation increases significantly along with income levels, and in a national 2002 survey of young people aged 15 through 25, 71 percent said they believed that political candidates would rather speak to older and wealthier people than they would to younger people.

But scholars suggest that other realities could be at play, too. One is extremely straightforward: It costs money to engage in the kind of activism that the MSD students are undertaking—the trips to the state capitol in Tallahassee and D.C., for example, and the freedom to dedicate time to this campaign rather than to a part-time job or to caring for a younger sibling. As Aaron Fountain, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Indiana University whose research has focused on high-school activism, explained to me, low-income communities have often excelled at political organizing—limited access to resources, however, often prevents that activism from translating into policy change, as connections to influential people and the media and the ability to travel help facilitate that change.

Much of the discrepancy in political clout may come down to a bias against poor people, who are more likely to be a racial minority than they are to be white. Black children and teens are, according to a 2013 report, nearly five times as likely as white youth of the same age to die from guns. A 2016 analysis by Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense found that 39 percent of the non-shooter victims of gun violence on school campuses since 2013 were black; just 16 percent of public-school students, meanwhile, are African American. Communities affected by this pervasive gun violence—what ProPublica has described as “a relentless drumbeat of deaths of black men”—are acutely aware of the problem. And they’ve acted on it.

Harvard’s Levinson listed numerous examples of young, largely poor people of color acting on their outrage over gun violence and “turning it toward constructive, civic, political purposes to try to get legislation and policy changes”: the ongoing student protests against school closures in places like Chicago, for instance—activism that is premised on the well-founded fear that the closures make children more vulnerable to gang violence because they force kids to traverse long, unfamiliar, and unsafe routes to school. The protests and pleas have had little avail.

Then there’s Black Lives Matter. While the movement has raised awareness about the country’s deeply ingrained social injustices and spawned a network of young activists crusading to combat police brutality and racial violence, it didn’t receive the same kind of sustained mainstream-media attention that the Never Again movement is experiencing. And the coverage of that movement has been a mix of positive and negative reports.

In one 2016 Pew survey, fewer than half of whites (46 percent) and just over a quarter of Hispanics (28 percent) said they understand the movement’s goals at least fairly well, including just 12 percent in each group who said they understand them “very well.”

Charlene Carruthers, a black community organizer and writer, compared the reactions to the two movements in response to Oprah’s tweet pledging her donation to “March for Our Lives”:

The author Roxane Gay expressed a similar sentiment:

Levinson cited research showing that the concerns of middle-class and affluent students, particularly those who are white, are “more likely to be interpreted as universal” whereas the concerns of their lower-income peers of color are more likely to be regarded as relevant to and true of a small percentage of kids. “Their experiences are not niche; they’re not a side show,” she said. “But for some reason the people in power, including people like us [journalists and academics], tend to see kids like those in Parkland as being our kids and as representing nationwide concerns as opposed to kids protesting in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York.”

Similarly, a sociology thesis paper out of Bridgewater State University found that school shootings in urban settings and on predominantly low-income black or Latino K-12 campuses received far less national news coverage than those in suburban middle-class environments. Indiana University’s Fountain cited a noteworthy parallel: His research has found that during the social movements and civil-rights activism of the 1960s and ‘70s, white youth activists were disproportionately featured in news coverage and historical texts even though people of color were often the main agents of those efforts.

Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian who’s researched how political movements shape schools, said the apparent discrepancies in how youth activists are received by the public are disappointing but not surprising. “When you think about it, how could it be otherwise?” he said. “In a society of inequality, including racial inequality, the suffering of some people is going to gain more attention than others.” Even so, Zimmerman and others applaud and value the traction these activists are getting.

And maybe Parkland’s demographics ultimately have little to do with the amount of leverage the teens are experiencing. For one, while MSD’s student population is predominantly middle-class or wealthier, it is diverse in terms of race: 56 percent of students are white, while 21 percent are Hispanic and 12 percent are black—a breakdown that roughly mirrors that of the U.S. public-school population as a whole.

Analyzing the demographics of other high-profile school shootings further complicates the picture. Columbine High School is predominantly white and affluent, with just one in five of its students identified as low income in the 2015-16 school year. Yet that massacre—which in 1999 took 13 lives, a dozen of them students—did not inspire a Never Again-type movement or instigate much political change. Perhaps that’s because it was the first school-shooting rampage in modern U.S. history; for Americans, it may have felt like an absurd anomaly.

Sandy Hook—where 26 people were murdered, 20 of them young children— is very wealthy and white, too. The 2012 tragedy certainly roused the nation and reinvigorated debates about gun control, but the grieving parents who emerged as that moment’s key gun-control activists struggled to move the needle on federal law, too. As one MSD student suggested in an interview with CNN, unlike the Parkland teens, “those kids [the Sandy Hook survivors] weren’t old enough to speak their experiences and their tragedy.”

A confluence of phenomena likely explains why the Never Again youth see their political clout growing exponentially: their educational experiences and social capital and political savvy; their advantage as middle-class Americans whose message resonates across demographics; the way in which mounting anxiety about and the almost-overwhelming media coverage of mass violence is making gun control seem more and more like a universally personal and high-stakes cause; and the fact that Trump—who’s historically been a vocal gun-rights advocate and whose current disapproval ratings exceed those of at least the previous dozen presidents at this time during their respective presidencies—is the commander in chief. In Trump, the students of Parkland have a target for their rage, something survivors of shootings during the Obama era lacked. It’s possible that just having that target—one that a lot of the public is similarly enraged against—has enabled their words to reach a wider audience.

Against this backdrop, maybe the outrage that had been bubbling up amid Columbine and Sandy Hook—and the steady sequence of often-overlooked school shootings—finally hit a tipping point.

Last week, I spoke with Michele Gay, whose daughter Josephine was killed at Sandy Hook. As we chatted, I lamented that America had seemingly become numb to mass shootings. “It’s not numbness,” said Gay, who after the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre founded the nonprofit Safe and Sound Schools. “It’s paralysis … people are becoming so profoundly shocked that they’re paralyzed, especially when the response to these tragedies is so similar … They’re paralyzed because they’re frustrated and confused about what it is they can do.”

Whatever the reason, the MSD teens’ Never Again crusade seems to have provided the ingredients America needed to free itself from that paralysis.