TAMPA — The pain of the Parkland shootings Feb. 14 was fresh on the minds of Hillsborough County's graduating seniors when about 300 of them received an assignment.
Write a 250-word essay on how decades of school shootings have touched your life and on what can be done to prevent them.
It was a voluntary task, open to those top graduates in the county's public and private schools who were interested in competing for scholarships through the 2018 Tampa Tribune R.F. "Red" Pittman Scholars Program, sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times.
They responded with calls for action, in the same vein as those Hillsborough students who at the same time were helping organize rallies to stop gun violence that would attract thousands of people across the Tampa Bay area and boost lobbying efforts in Tallahassee.
Establish a waiting period for gun purchases, raise the minimum age to buy firearms, and ban bump stocks, urged many of the essay-writers — all measures that state lawmakers soon would adopt. Prohibit the sale of assault weapons and toughen mental health checks, others implored, which lawmakers would not.
The writers spoke of fear and distraction as a constant for students today, the prospect of a campus shooting as routine as driving to school. Some want to lift restrictions on research into gun violence so we might learn more about its roots, others seek special attention to the challenges faced by young men — the demographic responsible for school shootings from Columbine in Colorado in 1999 to the Santa Fe High School massacre that is bringing more pain to the Class of 2018.
"I know exactly what to do, where to hide, and how to act in case of a shooter on school campus," said Aubrey Steigerwaldt of Durant High, who wrote one of four winning essays and plans to study mathematics at the University of Florida. "Yet, there is still one thing I have never understood. Why aren't there more measures put in place to prevent a shooting, in addition to preparing for one?"
The other winners are Jennani G. Jayaram of Plant High, a violinist and filmmaker who will study mathematics and music at the University of Michigan; Ashlyn Langford, Lennard Collegiate High School, who plans to major in international affairs at Florida State University; and Kishan Avaiya, Strawberry Crest High's International Baccalaureate Program, who will study biology at the University of Florida.
They were chosen by a panel of three judges: Stephen Lambert, quality enhancement plan director at Hillsborough Community College; Yuly Restrepo, an assistant professor in English at the University of Tampa; and Alice Loeb, a retired Hillsborough school district educator and administrator.
Here are excerpts from some of the essays submitted:
Jennani G. Jayaram, Plant High
"Violence, in all its forms, can introduce fear and inhibit schooling experiences, and thus it needs to be addressed by our policymakers. I would suggest a scientific approach to the social problem of violence as a path to safe spaces, rather than allowing ideological stubbornness to provide the blueprint for solutions."
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Ashlyn Langford, Lennard Collegiate High
"Like cars, I have grown up with the threat of a school shooting being as natural as drinking water. My generation should be the last to grow up like this. The key to finding a successful solution lies in defining the cause of school shootings; however, little effort has been made towards this. We cannot begin to answer a question we aren't even sure how to ask."
Kishan Avaiya, Strawberry Crest IB
"Primarily, tighter gun laws should be enforced. The privilege of possessing a firearm should be earned with compulsory training programs and proof of stable mental health. Furthermore, more tax revenue should be allocated towards investment in school security such as with more resource officers and video surveillance, allowing students to not fret about school safety."
Adriana Delgado, Brooks-DeBartolo High
"To be labeled the generation of mass shootings is profoundly disheartening, but, more importantly, it gives me a sense of urgency. The solution to this nationwide epidemic doesn't just lie within the passing of a single law, but rather a shift in the mindsets of the people and our policy makers."
Christin Rockway, Tampa Catholic High
"The media pushes my peers and I to believe that we should be afraid to walk into our schools every day. It pushes our parents to fear for their children's lives when they drop them off at their schools. This narrative of fear is more detrimental to children than the actual shootings are."
Andrew Mohamed, Brandon High
"The frequency of school shootings can make you feel numb. We need to stop feeling numb and act. As human beings we need to manage our emotions in a healthy way. ... Children need social skills training from early childhood through young adult education. I recommend schools teach mandatory classes on how to deal with rejection, anxiety, anger and depression."
Nipuna Weerapperuma, Middleton High
"I don't believe mass shootings should be inevitable in a 21st-century America, let alone a way of life for millennials. As an advocate of smarter technologies, I support app-based services such as Guard911 which equip teachers with a faster way to respond to an active shooter situation."
Kelviyana Walker, Armwood High
"From what I observe on a day to day basis, it easy to enter high schools, the people in them don't know what to do if there is a shooting, and nobody feels safe. To combat this problem, schools should work to push mental health awareness programs, antibullying campaigns, and involvement on campus."
Kayla Chandler, Gaither High School
"I believe that our generation is so much more than mass shootings and gun violence. Our generation is made up of people who are no longer willing to tolerate sitting on the sidelines and waiting for laws to change or waiting for things to get better miraculously."
Jessica Krasnove, Steinbrenner
"I propose we eliminate potential risk at the source. Schools should have a website created specifically for students to report suspicious or disturbing behavior anonymously. Students should become more aware of the peers around them, pay closer attention to threatening signs on social media, and have a place they can comfortably report it."
Robert Schofner, Plant High
"Our community needs to find a way to teach boys how to develop empathy and how to make the right decisions while setting goals. Our current school structure is too rigid and needs improvement. Engagement and support in the classroom setting early on with students will prevent mass shootings."