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'Too Many Of Us Are Struggling,' North Kansas City Teens Tell School Leaders At Safety Forum

Elle Moxley
KCUR 89.3
Law enforcement officers participated in a school safety forum Monday at North Kansas City's Oak Park High School.

Eleven months before a gunman opened fire in a Florida high school, students had to evacuate North Kansas City’s Oak Park High School.

They were told to leave their backpacks in their classrooms, walk outside in a single-file line and keep their hands on their heads.

“Why?” a student asked Monday morning during a forum on school safety. “Wouldn’t it be safer to get us out faster?”

Oak Park Principal Chris Sartain explained that during school lockdowns, administrators take their cues from law enforcement officers, who wanted to be able to see the kids’ hands as they exited the building. That way they could be sure no one was armed.

Hieu Bui was a junior last year when someone called in the anonymous threat. At first, he says he didn’t take the lockdown seriously – he actually put his head down on his desk and tried to go to sleep. Then someone in his class checked Twitter. The lockdown was all over social media.

“We didn’t know how to feel,” Bui says. “Was it a real threat or just a prank call? I was a little scared when we were being escorted out because the police officers had guns, I guess for our safety, but I hadn’t done anything.”

The threat, it turned out, wasn’t real – it had originated out of state. But administrators and law enforcement had to treat it like it was.

“Every student we had here at Oak Park High School was able to go home that day and hug a loved one,” Sartain says. “We really worked together as a school district to make sure that while this threat was 100 percent outside of our control, we could control the experience they had on that day, and we could control the experience they had moving forward.”

That’s one of the reasons why Sartain and other administrators agreed to take questions at a school security forum students organized in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, shooting. The television footage of teenagers fleeing Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School with their hands on their heads hit a little too close to home for Oak Park students.

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Oak Park students continued to ask Principal Chris Sartain questions after a school safety forum at their school.

Bui says while he feels safe at Oak Park, he hasn’t forgotten what it was like to file past armed officers to evacuate the school. He says he’d prefer it if his school didn’t arm teachers, as President Trump has proposed. 

Sophomore Malea Biswell was invited to take part in the forum after interviewing Sartain for the school paper. She’d asked him how he planned to punish students who walked out of class on March 14 and April 20 in solidarity with survivors of Parkland and other school shootings.

Sartain told Biswell he didn't plan to punish anyone. In fact, he planned to come outside to hear students' concerns.

But while Biswell was glad to hear administrators say they care deeply about the emotional well-being of students, she’s not sure if their interventions always work.

“I have friends who say all the time that they’re suicidal, that they’re having a hard time at home, and their grades drop exactly how they said, and it gets overlooked,” Biswell says. “They’ve never had a conversation with administration. There are a lot of kids, and I just think there are too many of us who are struggling.”

Biswell recognizes not all of her classmates care as much as she does about the Parkland survivors' burgeoning activism. But she still expects hundreds of Oak Park students to walk out on Wednesday.

“I’m going to,” Biswell says. “I’m going to be leading people out the door.”

Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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