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Students Host Congressman In Town Hall Meeting

Students hosted a discussion about gun violence in schools yesterday at Shaker High School in Latham, New York with Congressman Paul Tonko. 

After nationwide walkouts the week before, students from around the Capital Region gathered to learn how to take action and allow their voices to be heard, about a month after the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla.

Students invited Congressman Tonko, a Democrat from the 20th district, to lead the discussion and give his perspective. He said, “student voices need to be heard.”

“Well I think they’re hurting, I think they are concerned and they’re pained by the fact that again someone with whom they can identify, be they hundreds of miles away.  I think that it is important to them in the healing process and it’s important to them, I think, as a civics lesson.  I think it’s a good sound example of sound citizenry,” said Tonko.

Tonko spent two hours with the students as part of the town hall. 

“So what rules or regulations could have been implemented to stop the shooting in Parkland, or any other mass shooting in America?" asked Joe McDonald, a senior at Ballston Spa High School. 

“We have cut severely into mental health services in our schools.  I believe the fact is like $4 billion in rolled back in mental health dollars.  Stop the stigma of mental health, don’t start blaming everything on mental health because you are going to cause further stigmatization so people won’t seek help.  Oftentimes they are not mentally ill, we look at the track record where there has been abuse.  These are the people that are lashing out,” said Tonko.

Other students like Connor Chung, a sophomore at Bethlehem High School, commented on the factors influencing the gun debate.

“So, as some people have been mentioning there are certain proposals out there for example modern background checks that enjoy near universal support on both sides of the aisle.  However, at the present moment they stand a very low chance of actually being enacted thanks to the influence of big money and special interests in American politics; for example, groups like the NRA.  What do you think it will take Congress to move beyond big money and special interests and establish common sense and bipartisan consensus on this important issue?”

Tonko replied, “The public needs to continue to push on this issue, to have that counter force against that force of denial and to make certain that we live up to the expectations, and that is the people run the process, their voices should be heard," said Tonko. "As you continue to engage, that is what I am so impressed about with the student activity, you are not only igniting your generation.  There are a number of people coming around and supporting you because they have been there, and they see the lack of progress.” 

Abbi Olivieri, a junior at Shaker High School, expressed concern over arming teachers, a proposal supported by President Donald Trump.

“The reality of them shooting down someone with an assault rifle all in their gear trying to kill a huge amount of people, and a teacher just going out with a hand gun and trying to kill this man or woman in one shot, I think the idea of them saving the day is a fantasy,” said Olivieri

The town hall concluded with parents and community members sharing their thoughts. A few who said they belong to the NRA criticized the student activists.

Nita Ansari, a senior at Shenendehowa High School, thought the forum went well.

“It was really nice to hear from all the students and what their thoughts are about gun violence and the laws surrounding it.  I think it was also good to hear from the parents and adults here too.  But, I like that the conversation was focused on the students because they are the ones that have been the most active about it recently,” said Ansari

Tonko expressed excitement over the students’ involvement and questions.

“I think that we have a political generation forming, and there is a lot of hope behind their efforts to bring us to a table to have a discussion on why these numbers?  A simple thing like researching why so for public health purposes why so much violence?”

Congressman Tonko said he believes student activists are leading the nation right now.

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