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Black Officials, Students Offer Gun Violence Solutions During Miami Gardens Town Hall

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School junior Brandon Dasent speaks during a town hall meeting in Miami Gardens hosted by U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson.
Jessica Bakeman
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Christopher Powell was pretty sheltered growing up in Coral Springs.

“I didn’t wake up worrying, like many others across the country, about losing my life in school to gun violence,” the 17-year-old high school junior said during a town hall meeting on gun control and school safety on Thursday night.

Then he survived the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

“After the shooting on Feb. 14, I now have a different sense of security,” Powell said. Listen here to the audio version of this story.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson hosted the event at the Betty T. Ferguson Recreational Complex in Miami Gardens, leading the group of mostly black elected officials, community leaders and students in a conversation about potential solutions to gun violence, particularly as it affects minority neighborhoods.

Wilson, as well as members of the Legislature and the Miami-Dade and Broward county school boards, touted new gun-control measures approved by lawmakers last month following the shooting that took 17 lives in Parkland. But they roundly condemned a provision in the law that will allow school staff, including potentially some teachers, to carry concealed firearms.

“I’ve never heard of anything more ridiculous than giving a gun to a teacher,” Wilson said.

However, it was the voices of black students — including some from Parkland as well communities in Miami-Dade — that were most elevated at the forum.

Among the solutions they offered were further restrictions on gun rights. One student advised broadening the definition of assault-style rifles and examining whether they should be banned outright.

They also pushed their fellow citizens to become more politically active, register in parties so they can vote in primary elections and go to the polls every time there’s a contest, not just during presidential years.

“It is up to us to fight, too — fight peacefully and fight for what’s right,” said Malique Lewis, a sophomore at Miami Lakes Educational Center.

He said he has “a loving mother that says ‘love you’ and doesn’t know if I will make it home for the next hour or two. … We can no longer live in fear.

“Repeat after me: We are one.” he said, as the crowd mimicked him. “We are one.”

At one point, a fifth grader from Scott Lake Elementary School in Miami Gardens, Tyler Watts, sang the song “I Rise,” a capella, at the microphone. As the young boy hit high notes and riffs, Broward School Board Member Rosalind Osgood swayed and beamed behind him. His song ended with tears and applause.

Osgood emphasized parents’ roles in making sure students take their mental health seriously and get help when they need it. She also condemned the Legislature for what she argued has been an underfunding of public education. She joked to the Democratic lawmakers who attended that the Broward School Board might have to sue  over the paltry funding increase in this year’s state budget — following the district’s lawsuit last year over a controversial charter-school law.

Many of the speakers said they’re glad the Parkland shooting has prompted action, but they wish elected officials had been willing previously to hear  their cries for help fighting the gun violence that plagues many of their communities on a daily basis.

State Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Broward Democrat whose father is the mayor of West Park, said he has been discussing several of his legislative priorities with the incoming speaker of the Florida House. Among them: money for a pilot program that would boost after-school activities in West Park, Miami Gardens and Overtown.

“The state of Florida, we have done a very bad job in funding youth programs to ensure our kids have something to do when they leave school,” Jones said, arguing that providing students with recreational opportunities will limit their chances of getting into violent altercations after school.

Speaker Designate José Oliva, a Miami Republican, confirmed that the two have been discussing after-school programs as well as other issues, but he did not commit to supporting anything specific.

Both are running for reelection and expect to work together when they the Legislature returns following the November contests.

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Jessica Bakeman reports on K-12 and higher education for WLRN, south Florida's NPR affiliate. While new to Miami and public radio, Jessica is a seasoned journalist who has covered education policymaking and politics in three state capitals: Jackson, Miss.; Albany, N.Y.; and, most recently, Tallahassee.