High school students, pushing for gun control, tell Tampa gathering: ‘This time it will be different’

Published March 2 2018
Updated March 2 2018

TAMPA — Composed and steely-eyed, Julize Diaz answered the emergency room physician who asked her, in front of a crowd, why a 20-year-old returning from the military should be stopped from buying the gun he wants.

"Your job was to kill people and keep your country safe," Julize said she would tell the hypothetical soldier. "That isn’t your job anymore. Why would you need a gun?"

Diaz, Blake High School schoolmate Safiyyah Ameer and Alex Barrow of Hillsborough High spent the early part of their school day on Friday as guests of Café con Tampa, a gathering of community leaders and politicians who grill guests on topics in the news.

RELATED: Students march from Blake High to downtown Tampa in gun protest

The biggest theme of the day: How will they and others horrified by the Feb. 14 Parkland school massacre keep up the momentum of what has become a student-led gun control movement?

But the questions weren’t just about logistics.

Adults wanted to probe the psyche of students who have grown up, post-Columbine, and are now being run through lockdown drills while cramming for their state exams.

For some in the audience at the Oxford Exchange restaurant, it was a chance to share in a collective sense horror.

"My 8-year-old had to explain to my 9-year-old what to do if an active shooter came on campus, because the 9-year-old was at a doctor’s appointment when they did the drill," Marylou Bailey said before asking her question.

"Talk about how bizarre that was, I’m driving home from school hearing my 8-year-old tell my 9-year-old how to survive an active shooter."

There were outright apologies.

"I’m sorry that you all have to do this because we failed to do it," John Godwin told them. "It’s entirely unfair that as 14- or 16-year-olds, you have to take up this issue. Where can we help you?"

The students made it clear that as much as they appreciate encouragement from teachers and parents, this two-week-old movement belongs to them.

"We just really need you to back us up," said Safiyyah.

The 14-year-old Blake student, who hopes to be president one day, organized the pro-gun control rally on Feb. 23 that attracted hundreds of students at downtown Tampa’s Curtis Hixon Park.

She opened Friday’s session with the declaration, "The whole world is watching us right now. Students are speaking up and our voices are being heard. And we’re using that to our advantage and we’re going to go forward and make change. So yeah! Any questions?"

The three acknowledged the emotional toll of the Parkland shootings and the ensuing debate, including the possibility that teachers will be armed.

"Everybody’s definitely scared," Safiyyah said. "The day after we heard about the shooting there were a lot of people crying. I was really upset the whole entire day. I had a lot of emotional breakdowns and it didn’t even happen at my school."

Close to half of the kids at Blake missed school on Feb. 16, because of a rumor that a student had threatened the school after he was arrested weeks earlier on a felony lewd and lascivious charge.

The police and school district said they never confirmed he had made such a threat. Parents kept their children home anyway.

Julize said her 5-year-old sister described a brick paper drawing her teacher put over a glass pane in her classroom. It will hide them, but it won’t protect them. And why should a 5-year-old be concerned with such things?

"School is where you get your education," Julize said. "I shouldn’t have to worry about handling, ‘Oh, am I going to lose my life today?’ It should just be like, ‘Am I going to come and be bored in my history class?’"

She got a laugh with that line.

Alex got a laugh when he told the group that, although he is 16 and Safiyyah is 14, "she’s the boss of me."

Gerri Kramer of the Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Office reminded them of the importance of voting — that 18- to 25-year-olds register in large numbers, but do not show up at the polls.

They were asked how much they learn in civics class. Not much, they said. They’re learning on the internet. They’re organizing when they can.

"We, of course, are students," Julize said. "We are juggling personal lives, AP classes, homework and we’re also trying to keep our peers from being killed. So of course there are going to be bumps in the road."

They’ve been meeting with students from other area high schools. Marches and protests are planned, locally and in Washington, D.C. on March 24.

People tell them nothing changed after Sandy Hook, after the Pulse nightclub shootings.

READ THE GRADEBOOK: The talk of Florida education

"This time it will be different," Alex said. "We, the students, are taking action. We realize now that the politicians in office will not initiate the change by themselves and the responsibility has fallen upon us."

Staying on message throughout the hour, the students said easy access to guns will pose the greatest danger to their schools, no matter how much money is spent on security.

With the exception of the physician, who agreed that some gun regulation is in order, the crowd was overwhelmingly supportive.

But that’s who turned out.

Bill Carlson, who organized the event, said that when some who have attended previously heard the topic was schools and guns, they told him "they are over it."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol