By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published March 22, 2018 | En Español
FAYETTEVILLE—Like their peers across the country, students at Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Atlanta honored the 17 victims of the Parkland, Florida high school shootings.
“(Students) have decided this is a problem. This is to bring adults’ attention to this issue, especially politicians and legislators,” said Celia Browning, a junior and organizer of a Wednesday, March 14, event at Our Lady of Mercy High School in Fayetteville.
The day marked one month since a young man used an AR-15 rifle to kill students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Prosecutors will seek the death penalty for the accused gunman, Nikolas Cruz, 19.
As a reminder of the tense situation on campuses, a lockdown drill with Fayette County law enforcement at Our Lady of Mercy High School coincidentally came on the eve of the nationwide protests.
During the drill, students at Our Lady of Mercy High School huddled in their darkened classrooms. Teachers covered glass windows on classroom doors. Brother Colton Rodgers, school chaplain and teacher, hung his spare grey religious habit to obscure the view inside.
“There was profound silence,” said Brother Rodgers, a member of the Order of Friars Minor Conventual. “I heard that stillness.”
He imagined the same stillness in the Florida high school, but shattered by gunshots.
At services held at Catholic schools in the archdiocese, education leaders blended the students’ activism into Catholic tradition.
At the Marist School, hundreds of student gathered at Alumni Plaza for silent prayer as 14 students held posters of the 14 student victims while three faculty members held the pictures of the slain staff members.
Eliza Griffin, a Marist junior, saw teary students and adults at the memorial.
“We wanted people to see that these students killed were very similar to all of us—we wanted to create empathy, and that’s exactly what we ended up doing,” Griffin said in an email.
At Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School, students protested gun violence by waving signs from the sidewalk outside their downtown school. Cristo Rey president Deacon Bill Garrett was the only leader of a Catholic school to sign a letter from a group of independent schools in Georgia calling for “common sense” gun control legislation.
Other high schools dedicated Masses, set aside time for prayer for the lives of the slain victims and called for safer schools.
Seventeen larger-than-life photos of the victims killed in Florida were displayed in the darkened auditorium filled with students at Our Lady of Mercy High School.
On the big screen, one girl wore a glittering dress, as if readying for the prom. Another smiled as she enjoyed a dish of ice cream.
In the morning program March 14, the nearly 300 OLM students prayed for the lives cut short. Each victim’s name was said aloud and a candle lit. In the auditorium, prayers were said for counselors who treat people with mental illness and for those with “malice toward others.”
Nathan Haydel, a freshman, said the victims’ young faces show they had not had the chance to live their dreams.
“We need to make noise. That could have been us,” said Haydel.
Brother Rodgers reminded the students as baptized Christians they are called to live as “priests, prophets and kings.”
He commended the students for raising their prophetic voices during the nationwide debate surrounding guns. The chaplain said they join saints and others in seeking “widespread change through peaceful protest and countercultural methods.”
The issue of gun violence on school campuses raised new student leaders.
Browning, 17, is a cheerleader. Haydel, 15, is working on his role as the lead in the school’s spring musical, “Cinderella.” Browning is a member of St. Philip Benizi Church, Jonesboro, and Haydel worships at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Atlanta.
Marist’s Griffin, 17, is an editor at the Blue & Gold, the school newspaper, as well as a participant in the drama program and social justice causes. She attends Buckhead Church.
“They are my age. They have experienced some of the same things in life, school, sports,” said Browning of the victims.
She said she was energized to participate in the national campaign to show support for the Florida survivors.
“I was crushed when I found about what happened in Florida,” said Browning.
Haydel has been thinking about the unlived dreams of the young people. He has future dreams, just like those Florida students had, but their dreams were cut short by the campus violence, he said.
“Nobody deserves it. They hadn’t done anything,” he said.
Mercy principal Bill Dooley said students came to him to ask how to show solidarity with their peers. They were passionate about their goals and respectful of the school community, he said.
“The students are trying to find their voice,” said Dooley.
Students in grade schools and middle schools took up the cause. At Queen of Angels School, Roswell, students took time to speak with someone they didn’t know well. At Immaculate Heart of Mary School, Atlanta, students honored the victims by completing 17 acts of kindness. Middle-schoolers at St. Thomas More School in Decatur attended a 17-minute prayer service and silent reflection.
The morning program at the Fayetteville high school is not the end. Student organizers said their goal is to keep the issue in front of the community, and for the seniors old enough to vote to hold political leaders accountable.
“Either politicians are going to listen to me before I vote or after I exercise the right to vote,” said Browning, who will cast her first ballot in November.
Shortly after the shootings, students wrote letters to state lawmakers urging action on gun control. On Fridays, students and staff are gathering at the flagpole for prayers and a show of solidarity. This will continue until the school year’s end. Plans are being discussed to commemorate the 1999 shooting in Columbine, Colorado, in April.