Eighth-grade students Sophia Gomez, Maddy Muir and Owen Daniel discuss random acts of kindness during a walk-in at Queen of Angels Catholic School. Instead of a walkout to protest school violence, the classmates used their 17 minutes to plan how to reach out to other students. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: Contributed
Photo: Contributed

This Life with Gracie: Gun violence: Instead of a walkout, Roswell students walk in

At exactly 10 a.m. last Wednesday, when students across the country walked out of their schools to protest gun violence, students at Queen of Angels Catholic School in Roswell were holding a walk-in.

It wasn’t that they weren’t in support of the demonstrations held by their peers. They were. But instead of looking to elected officials to do something to stop the gun violence plaguing U.S. schools, these students have decided to look to themselves.

A high school shooting in Florida led to a national student walkout that swept up students in Georgia. This video features footage from AJC reporters, AJC photographers, Atlanta students and administrators. (All footage used with permission.)

“Protests usually end in violence or anger, so it doesn’t provoke change except people feel good that day,” said 14-year-old Caitlin Davis. “We wanted to do something that would have a lasting impact and invoke long-term change in the way we make people feel valued and loved.”

The idea came to them, Caitlin and the others said, during a conversation with Queen of Angels principal Jamie Arthur as she shared Secret Service data that indicated the vast majority of school shooters are white males, who felt isolated and had been the victims of repeated bullying.

If they lived up to the Queen of Angels school philosophy to be respectful, responsible, righteous and ready, that was something they themselves could put a stop to.

“We didn’t want that happening here,” Caitlin said.

That’s the kind of commonsense, responsible thinking you don’t hear much in the often politically charged debates about school and gun violence. The need for more gun control? Yes. Individual soul searching? Not so much.

RELATED: Vietnam vet says AR-15 has no place in civilized society

If this is the first you’ve heard of Queen of Angels #Walk-in, well, it just wasn’t sexy enough to garner the same media attention the school walkouts received, but that’s a whole other story.

This one begins with Maddy Muir, Caitlin, and Mark Ruppenthal, eighth-grade athletes and school leaders. Maddy, who transferred recently to Queen of Angels from public school, knew she wanted to “do something” meaningful to protest the violence the moment she saw news of the 17-minute protests on her Snapchat feed.

Hayden Parkinson shows Caitlin Davis words of encouragement that her first-grade class taped to lockers at Queen of Angels Catholic School. Instead of walking out of school to protest gun violence, Davis, along with fellow eighth-graders Maddy Muir and Mark Ruppenthal, decided to use the 17 minutes to talk about how they could curtail the violence by being kinder to one another. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“All the students were saying it was up to our generation to do something, that if we see something wrong, we needed to fix it,” she remembered moments before the planned walk-in. “I knew I wanted to be part of some change.”

The teens sought their principal’s help.

At the heart of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and elsewhere were people who’d been shunned by peers and made to feel that they weren’t important members of society, Arthur told them.

Nearly an hour later, they agreed that instead of walking out of school to protest gun violence, to use the same 17 minutes to initiate a random act of kindness for someone they didn’t know, had not been kind to in the past or who might have been made to feel alone and unloved.

Queen of Angels first-grader Daniella Hernandez tapes a note to a locker encouraging a fellow student to be helpful. Instead of walking out of school last week to protest gun violence, she and her classmates used the 17 minutes to perform acts of kindness, a call they feel should be lifelong. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

As they realized that the protest date would occur exactly 16 days before Good Friday, the idea to spread words of love and kindness, as called to do by Christ, resonated even more.

RELATED | Why is it called Good Friday and what’s so good about it?

Ryan Beale, psychotherapist and the CEO/founder of Therapy.Live’s Prepare U experiential mental health curriculum, believes the students’ intuition is spot on. Here’s why.

Just in the past five years, he said, for instance, the rate of severe depression in adolescents has increased by nearly 30 percent. In the past 10 years, suicides have increased by about 50 percent, and nearly 50 percent of adolescents meet criteria for a mental health disorder.

“Often times, the youth have a much better understanding of the problems occurring than the grown-ups,” he said. “As we mature, we tend to harden our beliefs and take our sides, while the younger generation is working towards the goal of having harmony and more importantly a sense of a secure and meaningful future.”

On one hand, students are concerned with their safety and well-being. On the other, they are equally concerned about the lack of connection they have with one another.

Either way, they are left struggling alone while the grown-ups in their lives argue about who is right.

RELATED | Will high school activists make a difference in gun debate?

There was no question in Arthur’s mind something needed to be done. Her only concern was that it be age-appropriate and Christ-centered so that in the end, Queen of Angels and the community are better than at the start.

“Catholic education calls on each of us, everyone in the QA community to feel socially, emotionally, intellectually and physically safe,” Arthur told students.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

What does that look like at Queen of Angels?

It could be an act of kindness, a supportive comment, an invitation to sit by someone you wouldn’t normally in the cafeteria or join in a game on the fields and playground.

Arthur charged students — after a closing prayer for one another, the community, and for those who do not feel valued or respected, for victims of hate or violence and the courage to stand up for their fellow human beings — to think on those things for 17 minutes, a minute for each life lost during the Parkland shooting.

“We must not only do the thinking, each of you must act,” she said. “Not just today but every day.”

Caitlin put it best. We need to dig deeper, she said, to get to know people and then show them we care.

“God is calling us to love one another,” she said.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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