MARCH FOR OUR LIVES, THE STUDENT-LED ORGANIZATION FOR GUN REFORM, HAS BEEN REIGNITED IN THE STATE OF TENNESSEE WITH THE HELP OF STUDENT LEADERS LIKE WYATT BASSOW, VIVIAN CARLSON, JASMYN MILLIKEN & SOPHIE KAVALALI.
On March 27, Nashville, Tennessee, experienced the worst school shooting in state history. Six people, including three children, were killed at Covenant School, a private Christian school previously attended by the 28-year-old shooter.
When students at Hume-Fogg High School in Downtown Nashville came to school the following Monday, the shooting was not addressed by school administration. Students were not allowed to leave and it was treated as just another day, despite the school being under eight miles away from the location of the shooting. Several students said it was traumatic, to say the least.
“They didn’t make any announcements. They didn’t acknowledge that it happened at all. So there were just a bunch of students in the hallway crying or students who were completely normal and literally just hadn’t realized that tragedy that had just happened,” 18-year-old senior at Hume-Fogg Vivian Carlson said.
“They actually told us they refuse to change anything because we thrive off of routine. So, even right after it happened, they continued with classes and everything,” senior at Hume-Fogg Jasmyn Milliken added.
Vivian said she couldn’t sit through class that day and went to their school’s “peace room,” which is a space to “just chill out.” Another Hume-Fogg senior was already there — Wyatt Bassow.
“I tried to leave and normally you can sign out as an 18-year-old, but they wouldn’t let me leave. My mom works five minutes down the road. She’s like, 10 minutes to Covenant. I just wanted to go there for five seconds, give her a hug and go back to school. I told them that and they’re like, ‘I still can’t let you out,’” Wyatt said.
It didn’t take long for the three students to know they wanted to do something. When they were in seventh grade, they attended a March For Our Lives rally following the Parkland, Florida, shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. These high school students have grown up in an environment where school shootings have become normalized, which helped them recognize how necessary gun reform is in the United States.
In seventh grade, Wyatt remembered thinking, “This is not going to end. This is something that is much bigger than us. I mean, not to say the basic answer, but truly we all just want to live through high school. We shouldn’t have to worry about somebody coming in. I know every last person has said the exact same thing, but what’s more to say when the repetition is the truth.”
There was already a rally planned for April 3 at the Capitol building in downtown Nashville, and Wyatt and Jasmyn knew they wanted to be a part of it. “It was a strike of realization to me when it happened at Covenant that it can happen to anyone. I was feeling immediate anger for all those children and for the access to guns that we shouldn’t have,” Jasmyn said.
“I spoke about this at the protests, but I have a four-year-old little sister and she’s my entire life. She does not live in a good area,” Jasmyn continued. “I know that [the] Covenant shooting happened in a nice area, but it makes me even more fearful. I just want to see her go through her first day of school and her last day of school, and I’m really doing this for her.”
Sophie Kavalali, a senior at a different high school in Nashville, lives two miles from Covenant School and helped students at her school get involved with the Capitol rally. She shared similar sentiments regarding the importance of gun reform.
“I think it’s the bare minimum to be politically active during this time, especially when you see injustice happening right in front of you. You have to speak out about it. My family, for example, is not from the U.S., and the right to protest, the First Amendment, is such a beautiful, American thing. So, if we aren’t using that, if we aren’t freely exercising that right… and the fact that the Tennessee House of Representatives is trying to take that away… I think it’s really embarrassing and it’s very un-American,” Sophie said.
Vivian said she was skeptical that they would avoid backlash. Like many other rising college student, her education is riding on financial support from scholarships which might be taken away if suspension occurs. Suspension, witholding diplomas for seniors, expulsion and lunch detention were all consequences thrown around by administration for participating in the walkout. The trio worked with their librarian, and read through the Metro Nashville Public Schools Disciplinary Handbook to make sure no one would face consequences for participating in the rally.
“Normally, I would not care about suspension, if it’s for a cause that is as impactful and important as gun reform and just honoring the victims of Covenant. But, when college is on the line, you have to take a couple more minutes to process that. Thankfully, I had talked to some teachers and was like, ‘If we do this, this and this, there’s no way we could get in trouble — like how could this negatively impact our school careers?’ Overall, I just was like, ‘No, I gotta do it.’ You know, it’s necessary,” Vivian said.
By 4 p.m. on Friday, March 31, they had created an infographic that described their plans for the rally, which was heavily shared across social media. Wyatt explained, they all posted simultaneously and then started pacing. Participants started RSVPing within seconds. Then, all they had to do was wait — half nervously, half excitedly — for Monday morning to roll around.
“It was easily one of the best things I’ve ever felt,” Vivian said of Monday’s protest that was filled with mostly underclassmen, all hoping to finish high school without the threat of gun violence.
The trio worked diligently to empower and mobilize the underclassmen (who will be able to incite change after they graduate) and it paid off. Reporters, photographers and students from surrounding school districts showed up to march. Wyatt shed tears over the beauty of the event and the number of people who came to support the cause despite the three-day turnaround for planning the march.
The group grew from tens to hundreds to thousands, and eventually amassed 7,000 people including journalists, supporters and students at the capitol demonstration. The three young activists described the experience as liberating and powerful, saying that they finally felt “heard.”
The trio is not stopping there. Growing up in a dot of blue in a sea of red, the group has developed a desire to dedicate their lives to activism and political change.
All three of the students plan to leave Tennessee for college to study political science or business and return to the state to “wreak havoc” and ensure that change is made.
“On March 27, three kids died,” Wyatt said in a recent Op-ed published by The Tennessean. “They were slain by the very laws that are thought to protect them.”
Prior to even being able to vote in this country, Wyatt, Vivian and Jasmyn understand how important their voices are in limiting the lives lost in America to gun violence. As an inspiration to their peers, their community and their country, these students are doing the work to ensure that the fear surrounding education can be put to sleep.
Vivian urges that if readers take anything away from their story it is: vote, make your own voices heard, and urge others to do the same.
EXCERPT FROM VIVIAN’S SPEECH AT THE CAPITOL:
“My biggest fear of last week should have been missing the bus or my stepmom scolding me for not cleaning the cat’s litter box, but instead I’m missing my English class to speak here at the Tennessee Capitol at Legislative Plaza because we are still protecting old laws for a new society. We need gun reform. We need stricter red flag laws. We need more thorough background checks, and we need to ban assault rifles. These are all problems we must solve to ensure I, my friends, our loved ones and our teachers come home from school tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. To the victim’s families and friends: we love you. You have the heart of Nashville with you, and we will never forget you or the impact you have made in the lives that were cut far too short. And to my fellow students, we cannot let this pressure and fire escape us. Feel the fear as you walk into school and let it inspire you to fight for change. And please, if there’s one thing you can do, vote. Vote for candidates that will listen to our cries.”