After the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, students across the country have raised their voices to protest gun violence: “Enough is enough.” “Never again.” “Not one more.”
For Lela Free, a freshman in Marshall County, Ky., another phrase comes to mind.
“We should have been the last,” she says.
Just weeks before the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, a student armed with a handgun entered Marshall County High School in Kentucky. He killed two students, and injured 18 others.
National media attention briefly flared, then faded away, as Free’s school began the slow work of mourning and healing.
It was just like every other school shooting.
But after surviving students from Parkland began organizing for stricter gun regulation, something shifted — across the country and here in rural Kentucky.
“They started speaking out. And I mean, look what it did,” Free says of the Parkland students. “Now something has changed, for the better.”
Free has been preparing for a local rally on Saturday, the same day as supporters of gun control plan to gather in Washington D.C. and around the country.
She carefully colors a Stoneman Douglas logo on a large sign and practices her speech.
“I thought that maybe I could do it, too,” she says. “Maybe I could be part of the change.”
‘I’ve got one down’
Marshall County is 98 percent white and largely conservative. Hunting is popular; Kentucky Lake brings some tourism. But mostly, life is quiet.
“The wildest thing that my community has ever done is back in the ’80s, like, our marching band made it in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” says junior Leighton Solomon. “Nothing really happens to us.”
Until it did, on Jan. 23.
Just before 8 a.m. C.T., gunshots rang out in Marshall County High School’s common area.
Free’s boyfriend Seth Adams was finishing breakfast — doughnuts, that day — and getting ready to drop off trays. He, Free and their friends stared at each other for a moment. Then they ran.
A man held open the door to a nearby room.
“All of us head into that room and assume the normal lockdown position that we’ve been trained to do,” Adams says. “File into the corner, turn off all the lights, make sure it’s locked.”
Free was certain that at any moment, the person with the gun would go room by room and find them, just like the school shooters in the movies. She and Adams waited, side by side.
The district’s superintendent, Trent Lovett, had just dropped his daughter off at the high school when he got a call from the principal.
“She said, ‘I’ve got one down,’ and my first response was that a teacher had a heart attack or something. And then she said, ‘and maybe more,’ and then I knew,” he says.
Lovett ran back to his car, calling his daughter, telling her to stay where she was. He arrived at a scene of carnage.
Teachers and staff were delivering first aid to victims, directed by the school’s nursing instructor. Lovett asked where the shooter was; no one knew. So he picked up a baseball bat from a nearby bag, and with three other men, took off down the hallways in pursuit.
He didn’t find a student with a gun. Instead, he found terrified classmates, hiding in small groups.
Solomon and her friend Keaton Conner, also a junior, were in the parking lot. “Whenever you see 200 kids running out of school and their faces are white and they’re terrified, you can kind of only assume one thing,” Solomon says.
Solomon was still in her car, and drove away without hesitating. But Conner, who hadn’t figured out what had happened, was caught up in the fleeing crowd.
She found herself ushered into a weight room by the football field. She was with a few dozen other kids, most of whom were crying or upset.
Except for one student, who was “just sitting there, kind of cold expression on his face, pretty emotionless looking,” she said. “He wasn’t on the phone like everybody else. ”
Then the door opened. An officer came in and pointed a gun at the emotionless student.
“You could have heard a pin drop in that room,” Conner says. “He just got up. He didn’t look scared or anything. He just picked up his book bag and slowly walked out of the room.”
Fifteen-year-old Gabriel Ross Parker is now facing charges related to that day’s deaths and injuries.
Bailey Holt and Preston Cope, both 15, were killed in the shooting. Fourteen other students were shot and injured, and several more trampled in the chaos.
‘You still see the effects of it every day’
In the aftermath of the shooting, Marshall County and the neighboring communities came together in mourning and solidarity.
“We really felt like this is the last thing that would ever happen to our school,” says Solomon, who fled from the parking lot the day of the shooting.
About 31,000 people live in the county; Marshall County High School, with some 1,300 students, is the only high school. “We got so much love and so much support,” Solomon says.
Keaton Conner came home that night and wept disconsolately. In the weeks that followed, she played the events of the morning over and over again in her head. Seth Adams had panic attacks, triggered by loud noises or screaming.
The local school district immediately began considering changes to promote safety. They added bag checks in the morning, with wand metal detectors. They are planning a renovation that will, among other things, reduce the number of entrances to the building.
The school worked to support students traumatized by the event, too. “Even if you weren’t in the room, you still see the effects of it every day,” school superintendent Trent Lovett says.
But the students weren’t holding rallies, marches, protests or sit-ins at the state capitol in Frankfort. The media showed up, then went away.
Conner wasn’t bothered by the lack of media attention, at least at the time.
“I wasn’t advocating for change yet,” she says. “I was just a victim of a tragic event.”
Then came the Parkland shooting, and those students’ outspoken advocacy. Like Lela Free, Conner was inspired. And she also felt something more complicated, a mixture of admiration and guilt.
“Watching these kids at Stoneman speak out and be so strong, so soon after, you can’t help but ask yourself — if I would have done the same thing, would it have happened to them?” she says. “I know that’s not fair for us to ask ourselves but … you can’t help but do it.“
Students standing up in Marshall County
Conner started organizing. She connected with student groups near the state capitol, ones that were more accustomed to protests and demonstrations. She spoke with school administrators and reached out to state leaders. She’s given speeches, made signs, met with the governor, talked with the press.
On March 14, as students around the country walked out in honor of the Parkland victims and to call for stricture gun regulation, she arranged a bus to take dozens of Marshall County students to Frankfort for a sit-in. More than 180 other students stayed on campus and observed the walkout. Students went back to the capitol this week, for another rally. On Saturday, there are rallies planned in Frankfort and locally.
“We wasted so much time in between the two shootings,” she says. “We’re not going to do that any more.
The students considered joining the national movement and the march on Washington, D.C., a 12-hour drive away. But logistics and expenses were complicated — and they ultimately decided their voices might have more of an impact locally.
For a school of 1,300 students, a walkout with 184 participants, a bus with 40 protesters or a single local rally might not sound like a big deal. But this level of student activism is basically unprecedented for this area, parents say. Superintendent Trent Lovett, who has lived here all his life, says he can remember nothing like it.
“Maybe back in the ’60s, there probably was some activism,” he says. “But I’ve been in this county since I was born … not to this level. I’ve observed students stand up for their beliefs, and I’m very proud of them.”
‘A heart problem, not a gun problem’
Not everyone in the county is joining protests, or feeling inspired by the national wave of activism.
Scott Cosner, whose twin sons were both injured in the shooting — one of them shot in the face — says he’s not a big fan of protests in general. And when it comes to stopping school shootings, Cosner says America has “a heart problem, not a gun problem.”
He emphasizes that firearms are a normal part of life in Marshall County.
“Everybody’s got a gun,” he says. “I’ve got a safe out in my garage with guns in it. Me and one of my sons, we own three ARs. … It’s not an issue. Those guns don’t just walk out and go shoot somebody.”
His sons, who are recovering well, just want to be ordinary kids and aren’t interested in speaking to the press, he says. And they haven’t changed their minds on gun regulation.
Cosner is firmly opposed to gun control, and says the student protests he sees on the national news are “a little much.” He respects everyone’s right to express their opinion — “that’s what makes our country what it is,” he says — but he doesn’t agree with the Parkland student activists, and it’s not easy to watch them speak on behalf of shooting survivors.
As for local protests, he hasn’t been following them. This Saturday, during the March for our Lives, Cosner will be working. And his sons will be “busy with sports or work,” he says — not protesting.
Redirecting sadness into action
The students who will be rallying know how much guns mean to their community. They say they support the Second Amendment and don’t want to take anybody’s guns away.
Conner says she wants, metal detectors, more resource officers, bag checks and some gun control measures, including banning bump stocks and large-capacity magazines.
“I don’t think you have to pick one. I think we can do it all. And I think that is very, very possible,” she says.
Meanwhile, in the local march on Saturday, Free and Adams — who is a self-described “gun enthusiast” — plan to make the case for more mental health resources as well as more gun regulation, including changes in how guns are stored.
No policy change will be perfect, Free says, but “stopping one shooting is better than stopping none at all.”
Some of the students, like Conner, Free and Adams, were always politically minded. The Parkland students just inspired them to be more vocal.
“I wanted to be active, but I didn’t think anyone else would help me do it,” Free says. “Now, since there’s more of a country-wide movement … it’s really given me a pathway.”
That’s not the case for Leighton Solomon, the junior who fled from the parking lot. She says she’s not political at all, and doesn’t identify as liberal or conservative.
After the Parkland shooting she posted on Twitter, asking why America has so many more shootings than other countries. “I was kind of angry, but mostly I was just confused,” she said. “That was kind of the first time I’d ever expressed any sort of opinion, any sort of outlook, on guns or safety restrictions.”
Now, she’s giving speeches and helping her friend Keaton organize — focused on school safety, rather than gun control, because she thinks those measures are more immediately achievable.
She’s inspired by her classmates, she says — and the Parkland students have inspired them all.
“We just kind of let the conversation die down. But these Parkland students, they didn’t,” Solomon says. “They are the reason that the conversation is still going on even weeks after the shooting happened. After their shooting happened.”
All the students say that calling for action has helped them cope with their grief and fear.
“I’m always thinking about it, so I might as well be doing something about it,” Conner says. “And I think it does help me redirect that sadness.”
And while they have received pushback — in person and online — from gun rights advocates and people who are simply skeptical of protests, they say the overall reaction from their community has been positive.
“Right now the love and the support is shining a lot brighter than the hate,” Solomon says.