'We want it to stop': Conn College students hold walkout over gun violence

New London — Julia Sarantis, an international student at Connecticut College, says she does not live in complete paranoia.

But when the Australia native goes to a movie, walks on campus or sits in class, nightmarish American mass shootings linger in the back of her mind.

"Transferring here and actually having to worry about that has been a theme," said Sarantis, a senior. "It's such a normalized occurrence here."

With #NationalWalkoutDay on March 14 falling during spring break here, Sarantis and nine other students organized a walkout Thursday, inspiring hundreds to rally at Tempel Green.

The students were showing solidarity with victims, families and students who recently returned to school at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 14 students and three staff members were killed in a shooting on Feb. 14.

Students here were united in anger and resolve. They called out politicians, particularly President Donald Trump, for what they described as inaction. They hammered debunked conspiracy theories that school shooting survivors were crisis actors. And they fought the notion that gun violence — especially in schools — should ever be considered normal.

"Our minds are being molded to accept this," senior Aidan Cort said. "Every time there's a new tragedy, we accept a new level of absurdity."

Senior Paolo Sanchez, who read a list of school and other mass shootings since the 1960s before a moment of silence, said too often the victims of such violence "become statistics that wash over the common consciousness" before being forgotten "the next day."

Trump recently has called for more extensive background checks, raising the minimum age to purchase any firearm to 21 and a ban on bump stocks, which let semi-automatic rifles mimic the rapid fire of automatic weapons. Asked if they support those proposals, students were quick to describe the president's suggested solutions as contradictory.

"Arming teachers would not create an environment where we felt safe," sophomore Cara Fried said of another of the president's proposals. "It would normalize it. We don't want to normalize it. We want it to stop."

Sarantis said she backs "common sense laws" limiting access to guns, like regulations implemented by a conservative Australian government after a 1996 mass shooting in Tasmania, which she described as "the last mass shooting" in that country.

But critics like the National Rifle Association say the rarity of mass shootings makes it virtually impossible for statisticians to verify whether Australia's ban on semi-automatic rifles had any genuine impact there.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, noted that Connecticut's bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines have withstood court challenges. He characterized gun control reforms as long overdue and currently within reach in Congress.

U.S. Reps. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., and Peter King, R-N.Y., announced on Thursday that their bipartisan bill strengthening background checks has garnered 200 co-sponsors.

"This is not happening because of an epiphany," Courtney told students. "It's because of external pressure. Young people are making a real difference."

Student organizers credited Elizabeth Reich, associate professor of film studies, for fostering conversation about violence and letting students brainstorm ways to create an open forum on campus.

"A lot of youth today feel like they don't have a say," junior Jillian Noyes said. "Having events like these are important to put pressure on politicians so they know what their constituents are feeling."

Deborah P. MacDonnell, the college's director of public relations, said the school "fully supports the rights of free speech and peaceful protest."

"This is an issue we're going to continue to engage on," she said. "This means a lot to them and it means a lot to us. We appreciate the strong show of support for these efforts from our students, faculty and staff."

Student Sharon Van Meter challenged others to "find hope in all this chaos."

"We find hope in each other," she said. "In order to keep this going, we have to work together."

b.kail@theday.com

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