On the anniversary of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., a group of teens and adults affected by gun violence in Chicago fought back tears Thursday as they recounted their experiences and called for more mental health services in schools across Illinois.
They are with a youth advocacy group called VOYCE — Voices of Youth in Chicago Education. Their special guest was Brandon Dasent, a survivor of the Parkland shooting.
“Unlike many of my peers in Parkland, I was no stranger to gun violence before the shooting,” Dasent said. “I grew up in an area where day-to-day violence was common. We tried escaping gun violence, but exactly one year ago today, it found us again. Ever since Feb. 14, 2018, I’ve been solely curing myself through activism … through meeting with others like you all, who share the same initiatives as I do when it comes to gun violence.”
Surrounded by behavioral and mental health experts at Lurie Children’s Hospital, Dasent and VOYCE leaders launched a campaign called Rethinking Safety. It calls for more behavioral and mental health support for students through grant programs, more investments in school-based clinics and evidence-based research to document the school-to-prison pipeline.
“Those are steps in the right direction,” said Dasent, who also co-founded STORM or Students Tactically Organizing Revolutionary Movements, an anti-gun violence initiative founded by Parkland survivors. “This epidemic called gun violence will eventually infect you unless you decide to stand with us and do something about it now.”
Ruby Ruiz is a graduate of Chicago’s Roosevelt high school who currently attends Loyola University. She has been a member of VOYCE for about four years. In a moving speech, she stressed the need to change the traditional approach to school safety.
“Safety doesn’t mean policing our schools, safety does not mean metal detectors, safety does not mean criminalizing us. You know what safety means?” Ruiz asked. “Safety is more mental and behavioral health services; safety is an investment in young people.”
Joel Rubin, the state director of the National Association of Social Workers, said school social workers play a critical job at school. They serve as a liaison between school, home and the community, he said. Chicago schools have long failed to meet the national recommendation of 250 students per social worker.
“Unfortunately, school social work positions across the country have been eliminated or replaced by other professions due to extensive financial deficits and constraints as well as competing priorities,” Rubin said.
Ruiz and other VOYCE members say their advocacy work will include lobbying state elected officials to pass laws to increase social-emotional support for students in schools across Illinois.