protest

Five students, including one middle schooler, Skyped with Congressman Ted Yoho, who was in his Washington D.C. office Wednesday during the nationwide Walkout Wednesday protest.

Whenever Catherine Sarosi heard a fire alarm at school, she’d grab her things, roll her eyes and trek to her assigned location while her classmates groaned at the inconvenience.

Now, she hesitates.

Ever since Feb. 14, when a 19-year-old opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 and wounding 17 more, there’s a sense of paranoia at her East Gainesville school, said Sarosi, a senior. Students seem jumpy and whisper about worst case scenarios.

The shooting was too close to home for some Alachua County Public School students. As politicians debate gun control and school safety, Sarosi and her classmates live in fear they’ll be next.

So when the fire alarm went off unexpectedly at Eastside High School about a week after the Parkland shooting, no one moved.

In her history class, the 24 students sat frozen, exchanging nervous glances and looking expectantly at their teacher. For a minute, everybody held their breath while the alarm blared. Something that was once routine, now, no one trusted, Sarosi said.

Sarosi, 18, said she immediately thought of Parkland, where the gunman had pulled the fire alarm, sending students pouring into the hallway.

The principal announced the alarm was tripped by mistake, she said. They exhaled.

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Ever since the Parkland shooting, Bailey McIntyre looks for the nearest exit when she enters a classroom. For the first time in her life, the Eastside High School senior understands the threat of a shooter.

“It’s always sat in the back of my head, but it never clicked with me until now,” the 17-year-old said.

Lunchtime conversations shifted from weekend trips and homework assignments to what they’d do if shots rang out in their classroom. Instead of joking they’d all probably fall while ice skating during their Spring Break trip to Orlando, Sarosi and her friends talk about which room they want to be in, and whether they’d hide or fight if a shooter came.

Her environmental science teacher urged them to run if an active shooter situation ever arose. Her English teacher walked her daughter, a freshman, around the school to point out hiding spots, she said.

Alachua County Public Schools are doing the best they can to put students’ minds at ease, said Robert Hyatt, school board member.

“This district did not wait for Parkland to be addressing safety needs,” he said.

In 2017, all administrators received ALICE training — active shooter response protocol that stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate — and are reviewing material now, Hyatt said earlier this month.

Unlike other counties, every Alachua County Public School has a school resource officer, he said. During the 2016-2017 school year, school resource officers suggested safety-related facility needs. Following reviews, schools added fencing, gates and doors, Hyatt said. They plan on conducting another walkthrough soon.

The shooting has spurred Alachua schools to reexamine its policies and facilities to ensure the safest environment possible. Now, schools are required to lock their classroom doors throughout the school day, Hyatt said.

Residents in Alachua County can vote on a half-cent sales tax referendum in November that could provide additional funding for public schools, part of which could be used to strengthen facilities, Hyatt said.

Alachua County Public Schools will receive an additional $1.1 million specifically for school safety measures as a result of the school safety bill, SB 7026, Gov. Rick Scott signed March 9, Hyatt said.

Along with more funding, the bill also raises the age to buy a gun to 21, bans the sale of bump stocks — devices that make a semiautomatic weapon fire like an automatic weapon — and gives law enforcement greater authority to seize weapons from individuals deemed mentally unfit.

The idea of armed teachers, metal detectors and bulletproof glass doesn’t necessarily make Sarosi feel comfortable.

“We’re not supposed to be in a war zone,” she said.

The high school senior is especially concerned about the provision that allows some teachers to be armed.

“I think it breaks down some of the safety that students can find in their teachers,” she said.

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Roderick Jackson, a junior at Buchholz High School, walked out of his math class Wednesday morning for something he said was bigger than himself. The 17-year-old marched to Rep. Ted Yoho’s office to demand answers to the questions he finds himself asking every day.

“How long can we wait before another one happens?”

“How long before my friends die in front of me?”

“How long before I die?”

Since the shooting, he feels like adults are starting to value the voices of students more, but he doesn’t want all of the responsibility of changing the broken system to be placed on his generation.

Jackson said he is proud to see his classmates mobilizing for a cause they care about, but he fears elected officials like Yoho don’t understand the urgency of the situation. They don’t understand the fear.

“(Yoho) kept saying that our generation is the future,” he said, “but we can’t change the future if we can’t live to see the future.”

Contact Jessica Giles at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @jessica_giles_.

Jessica Giles is a junior journalism major and Commission Reporter for The Alligator. Starting as a copyeditor in the Spring 2017, she now covers all city and county affairs. She'll never turn down a cup of coffee or the opportunity to pet a beagle.