Ethel Porras, a 38-year-old UF student adviser, fears sending her son to school in Gainesville.
She feels overwhelmed ahead of her son’s first day of kindergarten at Steven Foster Elementary this fall, and the looming threat of violence only feeds her fear, she said.
Thousands of Alachua County residents including students, parents and teachers filled Santa Fe College’s gymnasium Saturday for Alachua County’s 23rd annual Stop the Violence Back to School Rally. Attendees learned how to prevent and spread awareness for gun violence while they collected back-to-school materials and reviewed vaccination information
“The whole explosion of school shootings recently is really, really scary,” Porras said, “but I’m hoping events like this will help.”
The U.S has seen 384 mass shootings this year alone, 24 of which were school shootings, according to the National Gun Violence Archive and The Washington Post. Firearms are now the leading cause of death for children over the age of 1 in America, according to the CDC.
Buchholz, Newberry, Gainesville and Eastside High Schools received numerous bomb threats throughout the past year, as did Oak View Middle School. Police arrested a Fort Clarke Middle student for bringing a loaded gun to campus May. A downtown drive by shooting killed a Gainesville man May 1. A recent home invasion resulted in a woman’s death.
The rally’s “Getting to the Root of the Matter — Youth Violence” theme centered around finding and addressing the origin point of violence, Karl Anderson, the founder and president of People Against Violence Enterprises, said. The best policy for violence prevention is “see something, say something,” he said.
Anderson believes encouraging nonviolence in children is the key to preventing violence in the future. Seven in 10 school shootings are committed by young adults under the age of 18, according to data from the Washington Post.
“Parents are glad to hear an encouraging and advocating message of violence prevention,” he said. “We’re just letting them know that we support them in helping them with their children.”
While UFPD’s safety protocols will not change in preparation for the new school year, it did announce it would hire two mental health counselors to accompany officers to respond to calls — potentially shootings — by the Fall semester. The department will need to deem the scene safe before it deploys the clinicians, but they could help victims and witnesses address traumatic events.
Anderson said a major part of every rally is having children pledge to turn in any guns or other weapons they find to authorities. Parents and other members of the community are also encouraged to take this pledge, he said.
Anderson, through his parent and student violence prevention symposiums, serves as an adviser for an Alachua County student who made a bomb threat. He’s worked to transform the situation into a learning experience for good decision-making skills and strives to do the same with as many students as possible, he said.
The rally featured activities that would amplify the message of nonviolence. It hosted motivational speakers, an open forum where both Anderson and Grammy Award-winning Christian rapper Thi’sl spoke, and a performance from the Infamous Diamonds, a Gainesville dance group. Attendees also took part in spontaneous activities like a dance battle for children and parents, he said.
Thi’sl, 45, shared his personal story of growing up in St. Louis in an area prone to shootings. He spent his childhood without a parental-figure and watched a friend die when he was just 15, tragedies he said pushed him to turn his life around.
“I have a heart for trying to catch kids before they get to the places I went through in life, places I’ve been,” he said.
Violence perpetuates generational trauma, Thi’sl said. Not only does it affect victims, it also affects their loved ones, causing people to give up hope, he said.
He believes this type of back-to-school rally will catalyze change because it spreads awareness and shows children they are valued.
The rally also focused on providing Alachua County students and parents with useful back-to-school resources.
Aaron Shtid, a 15-year-old Gainesville High freshman, looked forward to collecting a backpack passed out at the end of the rally. Meridian Behavioral Healthcare, a long-standing sponsor of the event, provided free backpacks filled with school supplies for the first 5,000 students to arrive — an exponential leap from the 100 offered at the first rally 23 years ago.
Angelina Armstrong, a 31-year-old Alachua County parent, has continued to bring her family to the rally for years. Easy access to school resources gave her peace of mind, she said.
“It helps a lot, especially with my youngest,” she said. “He has some trouble in school, so it helps to know where to go.”
Skylar Burleigh attended the rally to collect supplies for the first time Saturday because her family has been struggling financially.
The 15-year-old Santa Fe High freshman felt encouraged to see her community unite against violence, and she said it made her feel safer as she prepared to begin high school.
“It makes me feel a lot better that these people are actually out here trying,” she said.
Contact Rylan DiGiacomo-Rapp at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @rylan_digirapp.
Rylan DiGiacomo-Rapp is a first-year Journalism major and a Metro News Assistant for The Alligator. You'll usually find her reading, watching movies and searching for creative ways to be more environmentally friendly. She loves going on spontaneous adventures and grabbing boba/coffee with friends.