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'The kids are not alright,' student organizer says after the latest school shooting

Students at Capital High School in Helena walk out of class March 14, 2018 as part of what they call a memorial for the Parkland shooting victims and other gun violence victims.
Corin Cates-Carney
Montana Public Radio
Students at Capital High School in Helena walk out of class March 14, 2018 as part of what they call a memorial for the Parkland shooting victims and other gun violence victims.

Four years ago, before at least 19 children and two teachers were shot to death in Uvalde, Texas, students in Montana joined thousands of others across the nation to walk out of the classrooms and demand action over what was, at the time, the latest classroom killing. Today, we reconnect with one of the organizers of the Helena Youth Against Gun Violence. Clara McRae was a senior in high school when she and her classmates formed the group in 2018. She speaks again with MTPR's Corin Cates-Carney.

Corin Cates-Carney The last time we talked, you were a senior in high school and the Parkland school shooting had just happened. Seventeen people died there. Do you remember what it felt like when you learned that happened?

Clara McRae Yes, it was extremely scary. And I think I probably felt a lot of anger, but I think predominantly fear. I think with the spread of social media, the fear can also spread a lot further, too, geographically, even when these instances happen outside of our own communities.

Corin Cates-Carney And a month after that shooting, you were among thousands of students across the nation who walked out of class demanding something be done about that. Today, now four years later, there was another shooting in Texas this time, and students are again staging and planning walkouts of classes. What is it like to watch that happen again?

Clara McRae It's heartbreaking. It's really, really sad because I think that it shows above all that the kids are not all right. And whether it be because of gun violence or poor mental health or whatever reason, children are clearly feeling as though they're not being protected and as though they're not safe at school. And that is heartbreaking to me, because that should be the time in your life that you're allowed to be a kid and not be focused on things like the future.

Corin Cates-Carney Did you feel you had to grow up faster?

Clara McRae I think I did, yeah. And I think that anybody who went to school around the time that there were guns going off did, and since reflecting on it, you know, my parents' generation had Cold War lockdown drills. And so this isn't a new phenomenon.

Corin Cates-Carney Part of your response in 2018 was joining your classmates to form the Helena Youth Against Gun Violence group. You helped write a gun safety bill and it went before lawmakers. What did it ask for and how did it go?

Clara McRae So our gun safety bill began as a child access prevention law, which would have — essentially, it was an aim to incentivize gun owners to use safe storage. It morphed over the sausage making process into a bill that had NRA support that would have brought firearm safety education into schools. It failed; the bill failed. It actually passed through the state House and then failed on a blast motion in the Senate. But I think above all, our goal with that was to just be noticed by the adults. And I think we succeeded in that. Whether or not we were noticed in a way that actually bred any change is up for debate. But I think that the ultimate message that we were trying to convey was that we were terrified to go to school and that we didn't feel safe there and that we wanted the people who we — who present to be in charge to do something about it. And they ultimately did not.

Corin Cates-Carney Did you learn something from that experience?

Clara McRae I think ultimately that violence and fear tends to breed more violence and fear. I don't know if there's any way to regulate guns in this country at this point. I think that while the interest groups have made that pretty much impossible to do, it's just simply too polarized. Like, A, it's impossible to get a bill written and through Congress. And B, it's just guns represent something entirely different to every single American. So you're not regulating the same thing. It's less about the particular groups and more about the people involved. All good politics is relationship building. And so any politics that is intended to divide and intended to keep people on different pages is probably not — is probably going to continue to breed this kind of fear and violence.

Corin Cates-Carney You said guns mean different things to different people. What do they mean to you?

Clara McRae Guns mean a lot of different things to me. They mean way too many things to me, actually. Like I don't know what they mean at this point. Like, growing up, they were just a thing. They were like a tool for hunting and whatever else, and then later on became a tool for violence. The more that I heard about violence and the more that it became personal, and I knew people who were victims of gun violence. But I think because guns are so prevalent, every single American has so many of those personal experiences and personal stories and different avenues through which they've interacted with firearms, and different ideas about what firearms represent. And so I think to go about trying to fix systemic violence by regulating what is essentially an object that has a totally different meaning to everybody involved is probably ultimately just going to be a more polarizing way to go about it.

Corin Cates-Carney What were your thoughts when you heard of this latest school shooting in Texas?

Clara McRae I'll be super honest with you, Corin, I heard about the school shooting from you. I really have been making an effort to try to not be aware, I guess, of violence that I don't — that doesn't impact the people who are directly in my life, because it just makes me so sad. Because, I mean, what happened in Texas is a tragedy and children are dead and good people are dead. And I think that the more that I read about it, the sadder I get, and the more that warps my view of the world, and the more it makes me unable to help myself and help the people who are actually right in front of me.

Corin Cates-Carney The last time we talked, you and the group of students you worked with, you referred to yourselves as the lockdown generation. And I asked you; I'm asking you again, what do you think that means for growing up? When you think about it now, has it changed anything in the path you've chosen for your life?

Clara McRae Yeah, I think it probably has. I think since reflecting on it, "the lockdown generation" was like a good talking point. And it was something that helped us express to the adults what we were feeling in that moment. But I guess it ultimately is a lot broader than that because all of us, every single person who's alive today was born onto a planet that's getting hotter and getting drier and getting more choked and getting more scared. And the longer that you've been alive, I think the more evident that becomes. And so I think that fear really is just the ruling emotion of the day, whether or not we're actually able to recognize it. So I think that that has changed, just in that I think everybody is going through a really hard time right now because the earth is going through a really hard time right now. And so I guess in terms of like broad life changes, just bringing a lot more compassion to my interactions with people and a lot more maybe forgiveness, because we're very complex creatures and we're struggling with a lot of really, really difficult issues right now.

Freddy Monares That was Clara McRae speaking with Corin Cates-Carney. As a senior in high school, McCrae helped form the Helena Youth Against Gun Violence after the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, in 2018. McRae is now a junior studying political science and history at the University of Montana. This is Montana Public Radio.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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