More than 3,000 people gathered on the Capitol Square Wednesday afternoon to yell, chant, cajole, plead and demand lawmakers in Wisconsin adopt laws that could save the lives of children. High school students from all over Dane County walked out of school Wednesday morning, with those from Madison and some surrounding schools converging on the square, as part of a nationwide, student-led protest in favor of stronger gun control.

At least two groups of students said they no longer felt safe in the confines of their schools and that it was time for Governor Scott Walker as well as lawmakers everywhere to begin viewing children’s lives as more important than donations and lobbies.

“We’re tired of living in fear at school of being shot and we want change,” said a group of Middleton high school girls. “We want to go to school and be able to just think of academics, not who’s going to shoot us.”

Photo by Fatoumata Ceesay

Megan Davey, Kyla Dunlop and Mira Baichoo held up signs that said Hold Hands, Not Guns and Guns Have More Rights Than My Vagina, as well as You’re Afraid We Will Take Away Your Guns, We’re Afraid Your Guns Will Take Away Our Children at the rally. They told Madison365 that they aren’t trying to take away gun owners rights. They just want to be able to exist as children without fear of being shot in their learning spaces.

Baichoo said she doesn’t go to big events at school because she’s worried that someone is going to target an event like that for a shooting. All of the girls felt that improved mental health services would make them safer than arming teachers would.

“We have some pretty good people working with students with mental health issues (at Middleton High School) but it’s not as good as it should be. It could be better,” they told Madison365. “We don’t know if Governor Walker is going to do anything. Hopefully, he takes into consideration how Madison feels. We’re not trying to take everyone’s guns. We just want to feel safer.”

Photo by Fatoumata Ceesay

Those statements touched on two overwhelming sentiments many kids Madison365 spoke to at the rally expressed: It’s time for people to stop pretending that changing gun laws will infringe on rights and it’s time for children’s lives to mean more than NRA money.

Mindy Phillips, a Madison West High School student, said that she saw people like Senator Marco Rubio not be able to emphatically put children’s lives ahead of NRA money. Phillips was one of the guest speakers at the Capitol rally.

“We don’t feel safe, honestly, and no kids should lose their lives over money that the NRA gives,” Phillips said. “I’m hoping we can get some new laws formed, just stricter levels of gun management. I’m not saying we don’t need guns, period, I’m saying there needs to be way stricter guidelines on how to get guns because that is the problem and why people have been able to commit these mass murders.”

Since the rally, Governor Scott Walker has proposed a plan that would create a new office in the Wisconsin Department of Justice focused on school safety. Walker’s plan would put permanent staff members into schools devoted to school safety and practices, and would give grants to schools to pay for security measures.

Walker’s plan would also require schools to notify parents if their child has been involved in bullying incidents, to have safety plans for school activities, to building blueprints to police departments and to have new staff trainings.

But walking around the square during Wednesday’s rally gave one the sense that those measures don’t line up with what kids are saying would make them feel safer or what people across the nation are calling for.

Guns and gun ownership reform weren’t part of Walker’s plan. And, while the Governor did not have a provision that called for arming teachers as has been proposed in other states, his plan still seemed out of touch with those demonstrating Wednesday.

None of the kids or adults Madison365 spoke to said that armed teachers would make them feel safer.

Photo by Fatoumata Ceesay

“Absolutely not, no!” Phillips said when asked if having armed teachers would make her feel safer. “That’s not going to defeat anything. That’s probably just going to make the perpetrator more mad and if they see a gun, it’s over with. What’s a gun gonna do? It’s not going to help anything. It’s just going to cause more violence.”

State Senator Lena Taylor agreed, adding that she would worry that armed teachers might be more prevalent in schools with lots of teenagers of color, adding to already deep disparities in the school system.

Indeed, placing police officers into schools to keep them safe might have seemed like a good idea at first. But, over time, in many cases, those officers have turned into major conduits of the school-to-jail pipeline for teens of color rather than beacons of school security. Taylor seemed to indicate that placing guns and armed teachers in schools could devolve into arming only those teachers who tend to supervise students of color. Taylor said she was opposed to arming teachers and was certain about what Governor Walker was going to do in response to the day’s rally: Nothing.

“I don’t agree with arming teachers,” Taylor told Madison365 moments after she addressed the rally crowd. “We keep putting more on teachers’ plates. They have to deal with the behavior, they have to deal with kids that are hungry, they have to deal with helping kids wash their clothes. And now you want them to get trained and deal with that? I’m very concerned. And I’m gonna tell you another reason I’m very concerned is in a state like Wisconsin, where there are disparities with people of color, it’s a problem. We are suspended more and I think that that same disparity will happen potentially with having guns in a classroom, so that is troubling me.”

Taylor said when she was a student at Rufus King High School in Milwaukee she never had to think about things like a mass shooting happening. This issue has been unique to this generation. She said what has been going on is unacceptable, but she is encouraged that this generation is stepping up to meet the challenge.

“I think it’s hugely important for the students to know they are supported,” Taylor told Madison365. “I think it’s hugely important for students to know that what they’re doing is democracy in action. Students need to demand what they want. And they want gun control and they want it now. One thing that the young people said that I think is so profound is that they are the next generation that will stop mass shootings.”

Taylor said she is ready to work with anyone on the issue in a bipartisan way because “these are our babies” and added that the trauma associated with this violence needs to be dealt with.

The trauma is evident already in the signs and faces of the thousands of students who made their voices heard on Wednesday. It’s not a partisan issue. It’s not a legal issue. It’s not a rights issue. It’s not a financial issue. It’s a value of their lives issue.

“Parkland is definitely not the first place this has happened,” Mindy Phillips said. “Yes, Madison is a safer place. But you just never know what could happen with being able to go out and get guns. We could be next, and I don’t think that’s worth it.”