Catherine Kvam is a sophomore and Senior Editor for VPR. Previously, Kvam spent three years involved in journalism with her nationally ranked high school newspaper; she first served as a staff writer until becoming News Editor and finally, Co-Editor-in-Chief. She is interested in social justice and international affairs.
I’m Phoebe Clements. I’m a freshman here at Vanderbilt, and I’m from Jacksonville, Florida.
How did you come to get involved with March for Our Lives?
I heard about it and saw it on Facebook when Abby Brafman, a freshman, posted about it. I didn’t really know much about it until I talked to Sabina Smith who is in my pledge class. She was really passionate about it, and once I got more information on it, I came to her one day and said, “I’m actually really interested in this. It’s something that actually hits home.” I hate to use that phrase. It’s such a stupid cliche, but I was like “I actually had a school shooting when I was in seventh grade, and (if there’s) anything that I can get involved in, I would love to.” She was like “yeah, that’d be great,” but she was really busy, so I didn’t think that it would be a thing. She texted me a couple weeks before the march and was like “actually if you want to speak on it, that would be great.”
I haven’t spoken in front of thousands of people like that before, but I definitely like that stuff. It’s something I really like to do. It was really cool but definitely very nerve-racking.
Was it a tough decision to speak?
I didn’t have much time to prepare, but it is something I’m very passionate about. I feel like my school shoved it under the rug right after it happened. I’m from a very conservative area that doesn’t like to talk about that stuff, but to know that I have an amazing platform to be a part of was really cool.
Why was it important for you to speak?
It was really important to me because I think I never really realized the magnitude of what had happened at my school with the shooting and everything. I was literally twelve years old, but slowly throughout the years, it’s something that has come up in my life. Something will trigger an emotion about it, and I’m like “wow, I never dealt with that.” As I’ve dealt with mental health personally and in my family, I realized how unwell many of these school shooters are, especially the man who did it to my school was clearly so unwell. So, I started thinking about how crazy that was that anyone that has any sort of mental health problem are not getting the help that they need and are being handed guns legally.
Do you think that the march was a success?
Yes. I think maybe we were only expecting 5,000 to 6,000, and I think there ended up being 10,000 people there. I think it was healing for a lot of people. I think people got more information through this event.
What is your opinion on current gun laws?
From personal experience, it was crazy to me how there are little to no background checks. I think that is something that could definitely be improved. It shouldn’t have political separation. Also, I personally don’t think that people need assault weapons in any capacity.
What would progress look like to you?
I think that our nation has put somewhat of a stigma on mental health. There has been a lot of improvement, but there is a lot more to do. There are a lot of people who do not feel like they can get the help that they need or feel safe to say that they need help. In schools specifically, I don’t think that there is a lot to detect kids early on with behavioral or mental health issues. So, I think that teachers or other adult figures that are in children’s lives could be more proactive.
What do you think Vanderbilt students can do?
After seeing what Abby Brafman could do in such a short amount of time, the magnitude of what she was able to pull off was insane. She got people to help her, but the original thought was all her’s. It was only freshmen who ran it.
I went to the PCC one time, and it was just not helpful. Now, obviously kids aren’t getting recognized early on for their problems, so I think Vanderbilt could do a better job of recognizing kids in distress. Maybe, teachers could receive the right training in terms of recognizing that in the classroom. Or, if someone does end up going to the PCC, I feel like there could be better probing questions.
If you did go to the march, I hope people really did listen to it. I think it is really cool that it was something we were able to do. I don’t know if it is just me because I did experience a school shooting that I’m more passionate about it. It is crazy how big the population is of kids that have experienced it. I don’t feel special, and I hope that if people ever do want to talk about it, they can reach out to me or someone who has gone through something like that because it happens. Even if it’s not as severe as an actual shooting, a lot of stuff happens at schools. People witness a lot. I even went to a small private school and thought it was going to be this perfect, little bubble, and it simply wasn’t. So, I think it’s important for people to talk about it.
I spent forty minutes talking to a kid who was three grades above me (in Jacksonville) after the march. He said, “Yeah, no one’s ever talked about that,” and it felt so good to talk to someone about it.
The following is a copy of Clements’ speech recited at the March for Our Lives event:
Hello everyone, I’m Phoebe Clements, and I am honored to be able to speak to you all about this important matter we have all gathered here for. I am currently a freshman at Vanderbilt, but I am originally from Jacksonville, Florida. I attended a small school called Episcopal School of Jacksonville with about 850 students total including the middle and high schools. We lived in what people might call a “bubble” where nothing too crazy ever happened. My sister had graduated from Episcopal, my dad was on the board, and my brother was still there, so naturally, I started attending in the fall of 2011 when I reached 7th grade. Being as small as it was, Episcopal felt like a second home to all of the students. We were a tight-knit community and everyone knew each other as all of the grades shared the same campus. I was just finding my bearings at age 12, but I already felt comfortable and accepted in this new place. Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse during my second semester that changed the lives of the student body and faculty forever.
March 6, 2012 is the date that I will never forget. It was a week before spring break, and everyone was already getting excited for the long vacation. I was sitting in a class that had about 10 minutes left in the period when random bells started going off around the campus at around 1:15 p.m. I looked at my teacher who had worked at the school for over 20 years, and I saw the look of confusion on her face. It was clear that no one knew what these bells were signaling as she started to dismiss the class. Luckily, my teacher opened an email that said to get away from the windows, so she pulled us back into the classroom and brought us to safety in a supply closet. We were so young and naive, and we had no idea what to feel in that moment. I remember my teacher not being able to find the words to give us any clue as to what was happening. How could anyone try to articulate something so severe to such a young group of kids? I could tell something was wrong, but I could not believe that anything extremely serious could be happening. Not at Episcopal.
We were not allowed to have phones in class, so I did not know what events had taken place until an hour went by and we were finally released. I remember walking to the main plaza of the school where students were hugging and crying. Being on the board at the time, my dad had been called to get to school straight away, and he was the first person to tell me what had happened. He said our beloved headmaster, Dale Regan, had been shot. I will never forget the broken look on his face as he had worked closely with her for years and considered her a friend. At first, many thoughts ran through my head. Was she alive? Who could have done this? And why? I don’t remember when the story was fully told to me, but eventually, some of my questions were answered.
A Spanish teacher’s job had been terminated earlier that morning, and he came back to campus with an AK-47 and about 100 rounds of ammunition. Shane Schumerth was only 28 years old when he took the life of Ms. Regan and his own. Our community was shattered, and the “bubble” was popped. The only question I was left with was “Why?” My brother had had him as a teacher a year before and depicted him as an outsider, but that did not explain things enough for me. After reading an article Shane’s older brother published after the tragedy, some light was shed on the matter.
He stated, “I know Shane dealt with a deeply rooted depression, nagging insomnia, crippling anxiety, and significant paranoia. He sought out treatment in counseling contexts at least twice, but didn’t last past the second session either time.” He goes on to talk about how he was going to visit Shane to stage an intervention, but it was too late. Given the fact that people were aware of his problems, my next question was, “How?” How did a man that clearly exhibited concerning behaviors access such a dangerous weapon so easily? Well, I learned that it is easier than one would think. He had simply gone to a gun show a month before and purchased an assault rifle in a matter of days.
I am not here to go on about my political views mostly because I am young, and I don’t think I know enough on certain topics, but I do have one thought that I believe everyone could agree with. The shootings at Episcopal, Stoneman Douglas and many others have something very much in common. Shane Schumerth and Nikolas Kruz were evidently mentally unstable and needed help. The two of them legally bought their guns, and it baffles me that it was so easy for them when their mental health problems were so apparent. Personally, I think mental health is something everyone should talk about and not be ashamed of. These men are looked upon by society as a source of evil when they were clearly struggling with inner demons that many of us deal with everyday on different scales. If we got rid of this stigma we have put on mental health, maybe they would not have reached this tragic point. If these two men and all of the others had received proper treatment and not been handed guns, I do not think we would be where we are today.
I would like to say that life went back to normal after the event at my school, but it has been six years and my community stills hurts from the pain. Everyone who has witnessed an event so terrible, and sadly that is a huge population now, shares the same pain. I hate that schools that once felt like homes-away-from-homes will forever be marked by sadness. I am afraid that more schools will be added to this list if there is no change. I am proud to be a part of this movement, and I hope people listen, so that schools become safe havens once again. Thank you.