IOWA CITY — One Thursday after school, Nina Lavezzo-Stecopoulos’ friends were texting each other to complain about their high school’s grading policy.
It was Valentine’s Day, exactly one year after a young gunman killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla. In the massacre’s aftermath, Lavezzo-Stecopoulos, 17, became one of several Iowa City students who organized walkouts and demonstrations demanding stricter gun laws.
This last Valentine’s Day, she helped put together a letter-writing event. She hoped her peers would sign letters to elected officials. But few students had shown.
The City High junior tapped out a text.
“Y’all can call me a snowflake or libtard or whatever all u wanna,” she typed. “But I’m just gonna put this out there — if y’all have time to write (about) minuscule changes in ur GPA u can write/call ur state representatives (about) how Iowa is doing jack s--- (about) gun violence prevention.”
The anniversary of Parkland, and the absence of substantive changes to gun laws in Iowa and the United States since, had weighed on Lavezzo-Stecopoulos throughout the day. Though she and a tight-knit group of teenage activists remain committed to pushing for a change, they acknowledge attendance at and interest in their events has waned.
On Saturday, only about 50 people joined the students — known as Students Against School Shootings — for a march in downtown Iowa City. Last year, the same “March for Our Lives” event went on for hours as hundreds of people trudged through a snowstorm and later rallied on the Pentacrest at the University of Iowa.
In many cases, their classmates who joined them in protest a year ago have lost stamina, they said. The low turnout was expected by most of the organizers after more than 600 people indicated on Facebook they were “interested” in attending the march.
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“I think of that as 653 people who are there with us in spirit,” said Theo Prineas, a 19-year-old City High graduate who runs the group’s communication strategy, “but who didn’t really want to come.”
In its early days, the group was organizing events nearly every week — the students’ activism became almost a full-time job and impinged on their schoolwork and mental health.
Since then, the teen organizers say they have grown into a more organized, purposeful and self-regulated group. Rather than time-consuming events, which often conflicted with their schools’ schedules, the group has turned to focus on youth voter registration and education, fundraising and the occasional event.
“We’ve realized that the protests can only go so far,” Phoebe Chapnick-Sorokin, a senior at City High, said. “We need to be getting personal with the legislators.”
The 2018 midterm elections — the first federal elections since teenagers across the country demanded gun control, led by students who survived the Parkland shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — saw record turnout among Iowans ages 18 to 34. Nearly 40 percent showed up at the polls, according to the Iowa Secretary of State’s office, the highest percentage since 2002.
But legislators in Iowa — where Republicans held control the Senate, House and governor’s office — have yet to effectively legislate against gun violence, the young activists said, and a shooting at their schools feels as likely as it did right after Parkland.
Last year, the Iowa Legislature approved and Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law a requirement that public and private schools develop — and practice — safety and emergency plans for each classroom building no later than this June.
At the federal level, a Trump administration ban of “bump stocks” — attachments that enable semi-automatic weapons to fire rapidly, as seen in an October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas — took effect last week after unsuccessful court challenges from gun-rights groups.
But the lack all these months later of more substantial gun control legislation has been a motivator for some of the teens, said Mira Bohannan Kumar, a City High School junior.
Saturday morning, she and a handful of others met at Yotopia Frozen Yogurt, near the Pedestrian Mall, to make protest signs and finalize the march’s speaker lineup.
“I think because there’s been so little action in the public sphere, we are more motivated because you have to feel as though your contribution means something,” she said. “When people don’t care, getting them to care is important. The changes that have happened have been so slight — there’s so much more to work for.”
Students plan to ramp up voter registration and education efforts again as the 2020 presidential campaign season begins.
“We’ve shown that we’re knowledgeable, and we take this very seriously. We’re not just doing this as an extracurricular,” said Chapnick-Sorokin. “We don’t really take any advice from adults. We don’t need it. … We know how to do this.”
Despite few state or federal wins, students said they feel seen and heard by the Iowa City community. Yotopia owner Veronica Tessler, who unlocked her doors early Saturday for the students, said she is proud to support them.
“I think we all, children and adults alike, recognize the need for safer gun laws,” she said. “Personally, I was a senior in college when the Virginia Tech shootings happened and I went to school a few hours (away), so this has been on my mind for (much) of my life. For these kids, it’s all of their lives.”
Adult activists with Moms Demand Action, a “gun sense” group that had a presence at Saturday’s march, said they likewise have faith in the high-schoolers.
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“We’ve been noticing, across the country, the presidential candidates are all talking about” gun reform, Rebecca Truszkowski said. “They didn’t use to before.”
The core members of Students Against School Shootings plan to continue speaking out about gun violence, even though they said announcements of their events often are met with groans from classmates.
They were productive and chatty Saturday morning — perfecting protest chants, coloring in block letters on their signs and, momentarily, breaking into song when Kelly Clarkson came on over Yotopia’s speakers.
But the threat of gun violence is nearly always in the back of their minds, they said — a threat they’ve learned to cope with and tuck away.
Shoshie Hemley, a City High sophomore, had sketched a target in the middle of a sign. In large letters, she’d written, “Am I next?”
“That’s really how I feel … nothing in Iowa has changed,” the City High sophomore said. “All over the country, gun legislation is being passed. Iowa is still stuck.”
Before the students departed to begin their demonstration, someone cracked open Yotopia’s front door. After more than hour of making protest signs, the fumes from students’ markers lingered inside.
“It’s not going to be the fumes that kill us,” Hemley said.
“Well,” said Prineas, sitting next to her as the group cracked smiles, “that got dark.”
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