In response to the Valentine's Day shooting that left 17 dead at a high school in Parkland, Fla., and to a call to action led by local youth, a group of community members met to discuss gun violence and brainstorm action steps Monday night.
Led by the local group, Chattanooga Moms for Social Justice, and co-facilitated by the local education grassroots advocacy group UnifiEd, the roundtable discussion focused on making community connections and calling for solutions. The emotionally charged evening featured the stories of local mothers, community breakout sessions and a panel packed with advocates and experts on some of the challenges in schools today.
"It is a statement to the world we live in that it takes an incident like Parkland to shock us out of our stupor," said Taylor Lyons, community outreach director and one of the four women behind Chattanooga Moms for Social Justice. "You're damn right we're emotional. ... But that doesn't mean the facts aren't there."
Most of the participants crowded into the basement of Pilgrim Congregational Church in Glenwood were in agreement that it is time for a bipartisan, community conversation for change. Many of the parents in the room also were in agreement that they are scared to send their children to school.
"It really just takes one person making a very poor decision to increase the trauma of not just our kids, but parents as well," said panelist Erin Goddard, a member of Chattanooga's Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America group.
Parents, educators and even Chattanooga Police officer Sgt. Josh May alike expressed a desire for more security in Hamilton County Schools, whether implementing one entrance/exit and a more controlled process of entering the school building, to increasing the resources available to educators and to troubled children.
"I can't speak for all educators," said Jaime Peterson, an educational assistant at Brainerd High School, "but we glaringly see the absence of resources these kids have ... I think that catching these kids early and giving them a voice, so when things get bad, they know who to go to instead of acting out in inappropriate or violent ways."
Many of the advocates expressed support for the local youth movement sparked by survivors of the Parkland shooting's own advocacy. Parkland survivors and other Florida teens have refused to return to their school, instead lobbying legislators for gun reform and organizing the national March for Our Lives movement, as well as student walkouts.
On Sunday, local youth met to begin planning for the March 14 student walkout and Chattanooga's March for Our Lives event on March 26.
"I think what feels different to us about Parkland is watching these kids stand up," Lyons said. "These kids are not in this fight alone."
True to the event's effort to encourage conversation across partisan lines, participants also discussed simpler measures like safe gun ownership and the importance of engaging with your children and children in the community.
Local mother Amy Smartt served as a reminder to community members that gun violence wasn't limited to mass shootings in high schools - gun violence is very real on a daily basis to many of the country's youth, though some advocates point out that calls for reform only come after suburban high schools are faced with a tragedy.
Smartt, a mother of three, lost her daughter Keiara Patton in 2014. Patton was murdered by an ex-boyfriend and the father of her children.
"My daughter is gone. I'll never see her again. I'll never talk to her again. ... Her face is slowly fading away," Smartt said.
She encouraged parents to keep an eye on what kids are up to and what they are posting on social media.
"Get busy, get nosy, get in their business ... it takes a community to raise these kids," Smartt said. "We have to be there for our kids."
In the coming weeks, advocates plan to call for change in a variety of ways - by supporting student-led initiatives, marching alongside them, calling upon legislators to pass laws regulating Tennessee's guns, and engaging with schools to ensure they can serve as a safe haven for students.
"We do not have a child alive in the school system who has not existed under the reality where they might die going to school," Peterson said. "Listen to the children. ... We have a great group of great, insightful children, teenagers who are trying to lead a movement, I think it is time to listen to them."