Some students booed at Kenzie Swanson as she walked into her nearly empty English classroom last week — on a day when most students were walking out.
Hundreds of teens trekked outside with air horns and signs as she sat quietly with four other students who chose to skip the 17-minute walkout at Lakeville South High School.
“I shoot a gun for a sport,” said Swanson, a senior who is on the school’s trap shooting team. “I don’t think we need to push for gun laws just because something happened. What they were doing [nationally] was more political than a remembrance of those killed.”
Since the Parkland, Fla., school shooting last month that killed 17 people, high school students across the U.S. have turned into activists, becoming the new face of the gun control movement. Led by the Parkland survivors, teens nationwide are spearheading rallies and demanding action from lawmakers to stop gun violence. In Minnesota, crowds of students have participated in school walkouts and have pressed policymakers at the State Capitol for stricter gun laws. They plan to rally again this Saturday in St. Paul, as part of the national March for Our Lives event.
But some Minnesota students won’t be joining in.
A less visible, less vocal group of high school students — who are no less passionate — disagree with the focus on gun laws as the national gun safety debate spills into classrooms and hallways nationwide.
In South Dakota, a school canceled a school walkout after negative Facebook comments. In Minnesota, as more than 1,000 students rallied earlier this month for gun control on the steps of the State Capitol, one student stood in a solitary counterprotest. And in New Prague, as about 100 students walked out last week, senior Andy Dalsin was asked to leave for holding a sign that read “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” The school said he hadn’t gotten required preapproval for the sign, so he retreated to a public sidewalk to stand alone with the sign, which also read “we all mourn together.”
“It wasn’t pro-gun. I was just stating the fact,” said Dalsin, who wasn’t disciplined for it but was told he could be arrested if he didn’t comply. “I didn’t support the rhetoric that was being pushed nationally by walkouts. But I wanted to remember the victims.”
In Lakeville, Swanson grew up around guns as a hunter, and she joined trapshooting as an eighth-grader. Since then, clay target shooting has become the fastest-growing high school activity in Minnesota, with about 11,300 students participating in the sport last year — more than the number of high school boys and girls playing ice hockey. (The teams don’t bring guns to school, and they practice at nearby gun ranges.)
Swanson said she thinks some of her peers participated in the walkout just for an excuse to leave class for 20 minutes. Others, she added, don’t understand gun safety issues.
“I bet 99 percent of the people who protested ... probably aren’t like me and actually shoot [guns] and use them in their life,” she said. “If I’m going to protest, I’m going to protest for my reasons.”
‘A hot topic’
The tension in local high schools isn’t likely to dissipate anytime soon.
From Ely to Rochester, Minnesota cities are holding March for Our Lives rallies Saturday for gun safety, mirroring ones in Washington, D.C., and in St. Paul. And a national school walkout is planned for April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado in 1999.
“This is a hot topic,” said David Adney, a former Minnetonka High School principal who now leads a statewide group for secondary school principals. “High schools reflect their communities. Every community in the nation is struggling. No one has the perfect answer.”
However, most school walkouts and discussions since Parkland’s shooting have not resulted in backlash or tension between students, Adney said. Teachers should use the events, he said, as a way to teach students about topics such as the U.S. Constitution and civic engagement, or to facilitate discussions in class after walkouts.
“For most kids this has been as close as you’re going to get to a watershed moment like Vietnam,” he said. “I think that will translate to higher civic engagement ... the very best teachers in Minnesota see this as a teachable moment.”
Since the Feb. 14 Florida shooting, Minnesota schools have confronted an unusually high surge in school threats — many for the first time. A Star Tribune analysis found that at least 19 school threats were reported in four weeks, putting communities on edge. And even more schools reported rumored threats and hoaxes that were later ruled not credible.
In Orono last month, police investigated after a student posted a photo of a gun on social media and made a comment some perceived as a threat. But he told police he was just advocating for Second Amendment rights. After that was ruled a false alarm, a second, unrelated post on Twitter threatened to shoot up the school, prompting a nearly six-hour lockdown of Orono schools.
But students like Cameron Williams, a sophomore at Lakeville South, said the push to restrict guns to make schools safer is the wrong focus and instead, schools should help troubled kids like the Florida shooter. He also skipped the walkout and said he would have supported having 17 minutes of silence in the classroom for the Parkland victims instead.
“Safety is a huge thing,” he said. “You can’t blame the guns ... it’s about people.”