Election day isn't until November, but voting – in both local and national contests – was the focus when San Antonio and statewide student activists joined survivors of the Parkland school shooting during a local stop on a nationwide tour campaigning against gun violence.
Several hundred gathered at La Trinidad United Methodist Church on Monday night to hear the student activists' get-out-the-vote message and get advice on how to become more civically engaged. Voter registrars greeted attendees as they entered the church, and the directive to cast ballots in every election was stressed throughout the evening's discussion.
Cameron Kasky was a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, when a gunman entered the school and began shooting, leaving 17 dead on Feb. 14. Kasky explained what he perceived as his biggest two battles since that event: first and foremost, gun violence, but second, apathy.
"Apathy comes in many forms but one of the most dangerous is voter apathy," Kasky said, urging the crowd to believe that change can come through consistent civic engagement.
Each of the panelists emphasized how large a role elected officials play in determining the environment in which students grow up. In Texas, following the most recent school shooting in Santa Fe, many elected officials turned to redesigning schools as a way to protect students.
After the Santa Fe shooting left 10 dead, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick promoted reworking campuses to use a single entry point and employing metal detectors to discover and eliminate threats. Since that time, local districts have implemented their own security policies – most recently, North East ISD announced it would require all middle and high school students to use clear backpacks, create a random search policy, and make school entrances more secure.
Parkland student Ryan Deitsch addressed the surge of school safety policies, saying that changing the structure of schools won't eliminate the overall threat of gun violence.
"Our schools in this nation do have to be safer ... but that's not the only issue of gun violence in our country," Deitsch said. "Any issue regarding a death with a firearm is gun violence, and we can't allow it to be split off ... we can't let them make these little boxes, because this is a much broader issue."
Emphasizing that gun violence isn't limited just to schools, San Antonian Janie Esparza sat on stage alongside the students with a fluorescent orange poster bearing a photo of her son Isaac, who was killed in an incident of gun violence.
Esparza said she was immensely proud of the students on stage for working to end gun violence, and wanted everyone to know and remember the faces of those impacted by it.
At the end of the panel, members of the crowd asked panelists how to move forward and for their perspective on local issues.
NEISD students sought advice on how they should respond to the clear backpack policy. Deitsch again said districts couldn't be isolated from the rest of society, and having clear backpacks would do nothing to protect students in the face of a real threat.
"Are we going to wear clear plastic clothing?"Deitsch asked. "It is a slippery slope, people! I don't want to live in a clear plastic world."
Kasky said he didn't believe that the use of clear backpacks would have changed anything at his high school.
Churchill High School student Sophia Mendez told the crowd that to change the policies they didn't like, they had to lobby their local elected officials in the school board. She said that she planned to attend NEISD board meetings and address her representatives to lobby for change.
Panelists pointed out to a 17-year-old student that in a year, she should run for a school board seat herself.
Students discussed upcoming elections for statewide and national offices. When a recent high school graduate from the San Marcos area told the panel that she didn't know how to start a movement outside of a major city, Kasky recommended that she meet with her state representative.
And when the subject of national politics came up, panelists didn't shy away from urging the crowd to vote against candidates who have accepted money from the National Rifle Association, the nation's most powerful gun lobby.
"What has Ted Cruz done for us?" Cy-Fair ISD student and panelist Kelly Choi said. "He's been taking [money] from the NRA, that's what he's been doing."
The last question the panelists received was how to address those who question the capabilities of young activists simply because of their age. Mendez previously told the audience that she wanted activism to become "popular" and see her peers strive to raise their own voices.
Deitsch told the crowd that it is imperative to not let up pressure on the movement.
"If this conversation ends here, we have failed you, and you have failed us," Deitsch said.