Students make voices heard at 'Generation Under Fire' town hall

News4Jax, JU Policy Institute host town hall discussion on school safety

By Elizabeth Campbell - Reporter, Colette DuChanois - Web producer

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - During two hours Wednesday night, students, parents, educators, law enforcement officers, mental health experts and community members offered ideas about what can be done to make sure children feel safe at school.

Channel 4, The Local Station, in partnership with the Public Policy Institute at Jacksonville University, hosted the town hall called "Generation Under Fire." 

REPLAY: 'Generation Under Fire' broadcast/discussion
BLOG: Discussion during town hall broadcast

The discussion, moderated by New4Jax anchors Kent Justice and Melanie Lawson, took place one month after the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 dead and as many more with physical injuries. The massacre left students from that school and across the country shaken.

Lawson started off by asking the students, "How many of you feel safe at school every day?" 

Not one hand was raised.

"The availability of weapons is what makes me fearful," an Atlantic Coast High School student said. 

"For lack of better language, we're fed up," another Duval County student said regarding children and teachers being in fear.

The discussion also focused on school threats, including those made in Clay and St. Johns counties after the Parkland shooting. 

"We were all scared. The majority of us missed school that day," one Creekside High School student said regarding a threat to the school. "What can the superintendent do to reinforce the idea of safety?"

RELATED: What should you do if you see a threat on social media?

St. Johns County Superintendent Tim Forson responded, saying, "There was no origin to that particular threat that we could identify."

He went on to talk about the investigation process after a threat is made.

"We want to be right rather than fast," Forson said. 

Students said they believe there's not enough consequences for making threats. They also expressed their concerns about the process of reporting a threat, saying no one really knows the number to call or the best way to do so. 

"We always have ways where students can call in or contact us and remain anonymous," Putnam County Superintendent Rick Surrency said. "We have reward money and that's helpful in finding the person who called in the threat."

One local student who went to Tallahassee was encouraged to hear about an app that would provide students with the opportunity to anonymously report threats and concerns.

First Coast Crime Stoppers Director Wyllie Hodges told students that they can always report tips anonymously by calling 1-866-845-TIPS (8477).

"Crime Stoppers is a nationwide program that's tried and proven," he said. "Our program here covers six counties."

RELATED: Frequently asked questions about Crime Stoppers

Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Patricia Willis stressed the importance of "see something, say something."

"When there's something you need to say, get it to an adult," Willis said. "We take every threat seriously. We track it down until we believe it's not a credible threat anymore."

The discussion later shifted to mental health. 

"A lot of kids don't know what mental health is or how to handle it. I'm trying to help advocate that in my school," said Jessica, a student at Atlantic Coast High School.

Willis then addressed how money will be spent for mental health services in Duval County schools. 

"Approximately $2.9 million proposed in the mental health area," Willis said. "The counselor-to-student ratio is more than it should be."

At the end of the discussion, Lawson asked the students on stage if they felt better after the town hall. 

Several students nodded their heads, and one student said, "The fact we're sitting here and you're listening to us makes us feel a lot more comfortable talking."

Some students who attended left with smiles, saying they felt good that a variety of adults from different professions in the community listened to their concerns. 

"I do feel like we introduced them to issues that we need to talk about. I feel like we had a lot of good insight from other students out there," said Jessica Pennington, a senior at Atlantic Coast High School. "I do think we accomplished something and that we're putting more ideas out there that need to be reached."

"We’re all working towards the same goal of school safety and I love getting to hear from the mental health professionals and getting to hear how that intertwined with our law enforcement and our superintendents to make our schools a safer place," added Rachel Cristol, a senior at Atlantic Coast High School. "That’s what the students want, teachers want, everybody in our community wants."

Though the town hall was a step in the right direction, some students said there's still so much more to discuss. 

"By coming here, I'm doing more to participate in this discussion," said Lauryn Byrd, a junior at River City Science Academy. "To discuss these things made me feel a lot more accomplished and encouraged to keep doing what I'm doing. And I feel like that's really going to help this generation move forward is that encouragement."

Though some of the concerns were addressed Wednesday night by local leaders, students hope that others will be remembered and acted upon by those same leaders.

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