Student-led rally brings hundreds to the state house

Stepping up: The crowd gathered on the steps of the state house at the end of the rally and held their signs for all to see.

Charles Rankin

Hundreds of people came to the Kansas State Capitol March 24 to take a stand against gun violence.

The event was one of hundreds across the United States organized nationwide by a group of students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 students were killed by a gunman Feb. 14 of this year.

Led and supported by students, the Topeka event was organized by a student from Emporia State University, Samantha Rae Inscore, and featured speeches from Topeka and Emporia high school students, a Washburn student and a recent graduate from the University of Kansas among others.

Topeka High School seniors Julia Howell and Tonyce Jackson spoke about the March 14 walkout and other ways students can engage relevant social issues.

Trace Tobin, Washburn sophomore political science major, spoke about two separate instances, one at his former high school and another at his girlfriend’s college, in which active-shooter threats occurred. He emphasized the commonality of these threats and his belief that common sense gun reform could prevent instances like these from happening.

Damien Gilbert, a graduate of the University of Kansas and State President of the Kansas Young Democrats, spoke about organizing at the student level and electing leaders who will enact gun reform.

Most of those in attendance were students, many from the Topeka area.

“I went to the march because I’m tired of seeing school shootings on the news,” said Mackenzie Moylan, a senior at Seaman High School. “I think that there definitely needs to be more gun control laws. I don’t think that anyone needs to own an assault rifle and there needs to be a change.”

Moylan said that younger people can benefit from engaging in issues they care about by doing things such as marching or attending an event like this.

“I’m … old enough to vote,” Moylan said. “I just turned 18 a couple months ago. I think that even if you’re not old enough to vote though, showing an interest and showing people that this something that you’re passionate about and this is something that you feel needs to change, even if you can’t vote, that still is a big movement.”

Those in attendance were vocal with their concerns, cheering during the speeches and at times shouting various chants such as “Who’s house? Our House,” a message in reference to the state house being a place for the people rather than the politicians who work there.

Students weren’t the only ones at the capitol. Several teachers, administrators and faculty members were also on hand.

Caitlin Schwanke, a teacher at Chase Middle School, came to support her students.

“We had a lot of kids who organized a march at our school who are concerned,” Schwanke said. “I know that they can’t all be here so I feel like I need to be here for them.”

Schwanke also came to the event to speak against the idea of arming teachers with guns, which is currently being discussed in the state legislature with Kansas House Bill 2789.

“I’m not trained to carry a gun,” Schwanke said. “I’m concerned with the bill that’s in progress right now. I should not be carrying a gun at school and neither should other people, except our [school resource officer].”

Several people from the Washburn community were in attendance, showing their support for the students.

“Violence is out of hand… and I don’t know what needs to be done, but something needs to be done,” said Courtney Sullivan, professor of modern languages. “I’m here to support the students in whatever way I can.”

Alexis Simmons, current WSGA president, was also in attendance. She sees that gun violence isn’t just an issue for high school students.

“I came [today] because not only high school students are affected, but college students [as well],” Simmons said. “The fact that we’re being forced to have guns in our classrooms, and to allow that to happen at a college level is just insane. [This issue] impacts not just high schoolers, it impacts literally every student.”

Also speaking at the event was Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla, who was a late addition to the list of speakers. De La Isla talked about how encouraged she was to see students engaging in issues that matter to them.

De La Isla also came to the event as a parent.

“I have two daughters who are in Topeka 501,” De La Isla said. “They are concerned [about] the same things that all the young people are concerned about. They want to be able to go to school and think about school. They don’t want to be terrified about the things that happen in the news every day.”

Army veteran Dustin Stumblingbear, who served in Iraq, spoke about returning home to see the same type weapons he used in war being sold to civilians. Stumblingbear also spoke about real change he sees occurring, by not only speaking out, but also by voting.

Barry Grissom, a former U.S. Attorney for Kansas and gun owner, spoke about the Second Amendment and its application for today’s society.

Heather Ousley, a lawyer and school board member in Shawnee Mission, spoke about school safety, the idea of funding education by supporting teachers and the need for students to engage in political issues. She spoke about the 1963 Birmingham Campaign, an event led by Martin Luther King Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which allowed children to join the Civil Rights movement. According to Ousley, the images of school children being terrorized by authorities with fire hoses and police dogs helped to turn the tide of the movement.

After the event was over, De La Isla said she was happy with the students coming together and hoped that their message was heard.

“I’m just proud. I’m proud of all these kids standing up. I’m proud of the power they have coming together. I hope that the message is one of unity instead of us being angry at each other, so that we can keep saying the same thing louder and effect the change.”