Fifteen Cleveland high school students sacrificed a day of their spring break this week to visit the Statehouse and speak with representatives about gun violence.
The self-described “Certified Nerds Against Gun Violence” pulled themselves out of bed on their day off to meet in front of Garrett Morgan High School at 6:30 a.m. to catch a bus to Columbus.
Once in Columbus, the students met up with activists from Moms Demand Action, a national advocacy group founded after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. The group organized an advocacy day at the Ohio Statehouse, and these Cleveland students jumped at the opportunity to join forces with like-minded activists.
As a part of Civics 2.0 — an after-school club where civically engaged students learn and blog about government, politics and community activism — these teens have spent much of this school year discussing strategies to reduce gun violence in Cleveland schools and neighborhoods.
In the action plans they created following these discussions, several students noted that a key strategy in the fight against gun violence is to advocate directly with elected officials, especially at the state level, for better gun laws and violence prevention strategies.
In the Statehouse
While walking through the ornate halls of the Ohio Statehouse, students told Signal Cleveland why they traveled to Columbus and what they hoped to share with state leaders.
Hadley Carlson, an 11th grader at Campus International High School, said she intended to speak out against Ohio HB 51, which seeks to “remove federal firearms law references from the state firearms control law” and essentially make Ohio a gun sanctuary state.
As introduced, the bill would allow the state to penalize local authorities for enforcing any federal gun law.
“We basically came here because we want the federal gun laws to remain intact,” she said. “If this [bill] gets passed, Ohio can opt out of the stricter federal guidelines for gun control.”
This means that federal restrictions like required permits for carrying a concealed weapon would not be enforced in Ohio. The bill was introduced recently and has not been voted on yet in either chamber of the Ohio legislature.
Another student, Mustafa Isse, a senior at John Marshall School of Information Technology, told Signal Cleveland he wanted to speak to legislators about how gun violence specifically threatens people of color and LGBTQ+ folks in Ohio.
Isse also mentioned he wanted to advocate against bills such as HB 51.
“If we don’t have stricter gun laws, access to guns will be easier, and schools will face many more threats than they are already facing,” he said.
As part of his school’s action plan, Isse has also been planning an anti-gun-violence advocacy day at John Marshall, on April 26. He said the school has recently had some scares related to gun threats, and he thought it was important for students to take the issue seriously.
Ju’Mya, a 10th grader from Glenville High School, said she wanted to push for new legislation that would raise the legal age for purchasing a firearm from 18 to 25.
Students networked with leaders and shared their experiences
In their travels through the Statehouse, students ran into Cleveland City Council members Deborah Gray and Stephanie Howse, who were also there to speak with legislators.
They also had the chance to speak briefly with Ohio Sen. Hearcel Craig (D-15) and Frank Whitfield, the mayor of Elyria, who was there to support Moms Demand Action.
But the Cleveland students wanted to speak to their own state representatives too. After some time spent figuring out the layout of the Statehouse, the group navigated their way to the office of Sen. Nickie J. Antonio (D-23), who represents a majority of Cleveland neighborhoods.
The senator herself was in Washington, D.C., for the day, but students were invited to speak with Chelsea Kao, Sen. Antonio’s senior legislative aide, who works closely with the senator on policy and legislation.
Kao sat at the senator’s desk and took notes as students shared their first-hand experiences with gun violence in Cleveland. She told the students she would pass along their messages to the senator.
Evylyse Caraballo, a senior at Rhodes College & Career Academy, told Kao about the drive-by shooting that happened outside her school in September 2022.
Another student, D’Asia, who goes to Glenville High School, shared her experience grieving the death of her close friend’s father.
Other students brought up John Adams High School student Pierre McCoy, who was shot outside the school while waiting for a bus in January 2023.
Stephen Conner, a 2022 graduate of Campus International High School who has been helping organize the Civics 2.0 anti-gun-violence initiative events, told the senator’s aide about the Civics program, the anti-gun-violence symposium the students hosted in Cleveland in December, and the students’ involvement in the advocacy day with Moms Demand Action.
“People are noticing”
Conner later told Signal Cleveland that throughout the visit he was thrilled to see that people he spoke with were noticing and recognizing the group of Cleveland students.
“It feels great because we’ve been doing all this work and people are noticing. It’s such a good feeling to see people go up to the kids and say, ‘We were at your gun-violence seminar’.”