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Students use walkout platform to highlight 17 local victims

Students use walkout platform to highlight 17 local victims

Victims of Schenectady gun violence get focus
Students use walkout platform to highlight 17 local victims
Student walkout event at Schenectady High School on Wednesday, March 14.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

One of them, 15-year-old Eddie Stanley, was shot and killed at a party for teenagers. Another, 20-year-old Jonny Olds, an expecting father, was killed after a group of people he was with was shot at on Crane Street.

LaSean Gause, whose mother remembered him as a smart and loving son, was simply there on Albany Street when two people who had no connection to Gause opened fire. 

The names and stories go on. In a matter of hours recently, a group of Schenectady High School students had compiled the names of 17 local victims of some form of gun violence - including Stanley, Olds and Gause - to pair with the 17 names of students and staff killed in a Florida school last month. The lists formed the core of a memorial ceremony and walkout demonstration at the school earlier this week.

“My name was Virgil Terry. I was 21 years old,” the first of 17 Schenectady students said as they embodied those killed by firearms. One-by-one 15 other Schenectady students read victims' names before reaching the final name.

“My name was Eddie Stanley. I was 15 years old,” a student said, before adding: “Our dreams, our futures and our lives were cut short due to gun violence.”

As schools across the country memorialized 17 people who were killed in the Florida shooting, Schenectady students used their walkout to remind people of the gun violence they constantly live with and the trauma it causes for young people.

“The reason we are here today is because we want to stand in solidarity with the victims of Parkland and with victims within our own community of gun violence,” said senior Alyssa Harrynanan, one of the walkout organizers, during Wednesday's event.

The list compiled by the students of the 17 local victims perhaps coincidentally itself spanned 17 years, back to the 2001 shooting death of Elliott Felder. To be sure, a complete list in that time frame for Schenectady would be much longer. From 2009 to 2017 - nine years - gun violence claimed 32 people, according to a state tally. Last year, though, saw only a single death, Olds.

For Steven Mollette, not a day goes by that his thoughts don't turn to his daughter Unishun. This September will mark 15 years since a bullet fired in anger at another person on Stanley Street instead found the promising 19-year-old Schenectady County Community College student and ended her life.

Told of the students' list and their inclusion of Unishun's name, Mollette applauded their efforts.

"It's been going on too long, adolescents being murdered," the father and social studies teacher said. "It's not just in schools, it's in general. Case in point: My daughter."

Mollette, who lives in Peekskill, made several trips to Schenectady in the months and years to Schenectady, first to ensure justice for his daughter, then to highlight issues like working with police to solve crimes.

He said he also thought originally about speaking out on gun issues, too. His daughter's killer, then already with a long criminal history, shouldn't have had a gun, but still found a way to get one. Changes in gun laws, he believes, could have made that harder. But, he said, he came to understand then that "the NRA is not an easy cookie to crack."

"What these kids are doing today, that tough cookie, I believe, is ready to crack," Mollette said.

"I really do think, with these young kids these days, there's going to be a change," Mollette added later, "because these young kids, they're future voters."

Wednesday's event itself included those directly touched by gun violence holding signs bearing victims' names. One sign holder lost her father to gun violence when she was 10. A friend standing nearby said her brother’s uncle was killed on her brother’s birthday.

Senior Shayla Kerr said she remembered seeing Medina Knowles at school just days before Knowles was shot and killed in September 2016.

“When she died, we all felt that,” Kerr said in an interview prior to the walkouts. “I had just seen her smiling and talking to a teacher.”

Killed in Hamilton Hill, Knowles was the fourth homicide in that Schenectady neighborhood that year.

Schenectady has long wrestled with gun violence. In the first 10 months of 2017, Schenectady police confirmed nearly 40 cases of shots fired in the city. During the same time frame in 2016, there were 32 shots-fired cases; in 2015, that number was 46.

Police are looking to use data and build stronger relationships with community members in efforts to reduce gun violence. The school district aims to foster more student conversations about the trauma in their lives and train teachers and build a system better attuned to the realities of students’ lives.

The students don’t plan to let anyone forget their trauma, either.

At this past week's high school rally, Kerr referenced the families of those who have lost loved ones to gun violence, including Schenectady students. She said the lives and stories must never be forgotten.

“When I looked up the stories of your sons and daughters, I cried for you. And I hope someday you find healing and you remember we all stand here for you,” she said. “We say these names because we can’t forget the cries in our own community, and if we do not keep speaking, we stand here in vain.”

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