Six words changed Robert Schentrup’s life after 12 hours spent waiting for news of his teenage sister following the Parkland school massacre. “Bobby, your sister has been killed,” his father sobbed down the telephone.
Today, the Schentrups and other grieving parents who sent their children to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSD) on February 14 but got only bullet-riddled bodies back will be among half a million people expected to throng Washington DC for March for Our Lives, a youth-led rally calling time on gun violence in America.
“There are a lot of communities that gun violence has affected disproportionately for a long time and their voices haven’t been heard — kids in places like Chicago who’ve been crying out for years, but where getting shot is something that happens every day,” said Robert, 18.
“Parkland was declared the safest community in Florida the week of the shooting, it’s affluent, it was somewhere people thought it couldn’t happen. Now our voices can help to raise all those others that haven’t been listened to and send a message that we’re all here, collectively, to fight for the right to not get shot. This is a march for all our lives.”
More than 800 other marches will take place across the US, including Parkland, where 17 students and staff were killed and 17 more injured when a former student opened fire with an AR-15 assault rifle last month. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Nikolas Cruz, 19, an expelled student.
Carmen Schentrup, 16, was shot four times. The horror of what occurred haunts her brother, who replays visceral images in his mind of a bullet speeding through her classroom door and through her skull. He has seen his parents, Philip and April, break down uncontrollably and notes that Carmen’s once vivacious presence in the family home “has now been replaced with pounds of ash in an urn”.
In Parkland and the neighbouring community of Coral Springs, from where the school’s 3,300 students are drawn, vigils, memorial events and therapy sessions have become part of the new way of life. Parents, teachers and students talk of being unable to settle at everyday tasks as they continue to grieve.
March for Our Lives, however, has provided a point of focus, after MSD students founded a powerful activist movement calling for gun reform including a ban on assault weapons. Today they will march down Pennsylvania Avenue alongside peers from urban communities where gun violence is commonplace, attempting to broaden the spotlight beyond just Parkland.
“Students from this school have been fighting for this kind of attention for months,” said Lauryn Renford, 16, a student at Thurgood Marshall Academy in DC, whose boyfriend Zaire Kelly, 16, was shot dead outside his house in September. In January, another student at the school, Paris Brown, 19, was also killed by a gunman.
During a visit from MSD students on Thursday, Zaire’s brother, Zion , 17, told an assembly at the school – whose population is predominantly African-American: “Raise your hand if you’ve been affected by gun violence.” Almost every child raised their hand.
“Living in this community forces us to face the impact of guns on a daily basis,” he said.
David Hogg, 17, an MSD student, complained that media and public attention towards shootings is biased towards “white privileged students.”
Hogg, who is white, told peers at Thurgood Marshall: “Your voices are just as important as mine.”
Cameron Kasky, 17, also from MSD, added: “It happened in our community once – but you guys are the experts on this. This is a war you’ve been thrust into all your lives and your voices haven’t been heard. We’re here to listen.”