Kentucky Avenue School language arts teacher Tara Henson and her students at a protest outside the school, which is housed in the Third Presbyterian Church at the corner of Fifth and Negley avenues. Photo by Ann Belser.

Tara Henson’s middle school language arts students at Kentucky Avenue School have spent much of their lives aware of gun violence.

“Back when I was in third grade, my summer camp did a shooting drill and we hid in the pool room, in the hallway connecting the lockers. We hid there for like 30 minutes and then we went outside,” eighth-grader Lea Julian said. “After that, I always had an escape plan prepared, or a little hiding spot that only I knew about, so that if I hid there, I knew I would be safe because I knew where the exit would be.”

Soren Yates, also in eighth grade, lamented that students now have to be aware of any of this.

“Students should be ready to learn, not to survive,” Yates said.

The 12 students in the middle school language arts class described what it has been like to grow up in a country where the whiteboard in their classroom contains the statistics: “Guns are the leading cause of death among American kids and teens. One out of 10 gun deaths are 19 or younger. Since 1999 Columbine, more than 338,000 students in the U.S. have experienced gun violence” and “there were more school shootings in 2022 than in any year since Columbine.”

Kentucky Avenue School is a small private school at the Third Presbyterian Church at the corner of Fifth and Negley avenues in Shadyside. The school, which is for children in kindergarten through eighth grade, has 64 students.

On April 5, the language arts class took part in the National School Walkout led by Students Demand Action, an organization calling for gun control and an end to gun violence.

During the week that Kentucky Avenue School was closed for spring break, three 9-year-old students and three adults were killed by a shooter at The Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee, and then less than a mile away from Kentucky Avenue School, students at Central and Oakland Catholic Schools were forced to hide, then evacuate, in response to a false report of a shooter.

Axel Julian, a student at Kentucky Avenue School, sits in his language arts classroom, which has grim statistics about mass shootings at schools. Photo by Ann Belser.

“I wasn’t surprised because it just happens so often. It’s madness,” said seventh-grader Micah Lagana.

On April 3, when Kentucky Avenue School reopened, some of the children found themselves concerned about going back to class. Even though the calls had not been about their school, it was too close.

“Coming back on Monday I feel like everybody was really tense because it was so recent,” eighth-grader Liam Spencer said. “Everybody was really tensed up.”

“When we came back to school, I think a lot of us were scared or nervous. This happened so many times. … We didn’t just want this to be another one. We wanted to do something about it, so we set up the walkout to spread word about it,” said eighth-grader Maia Stern. “I think what we were trying to accomplish with the walkout was just bringing people together, not necessarily to change other people’s minds, but bringing people who agree that this should be stopped together, and become more passionate about it.”

“A guy stopped at the red light in front of us and said, ‘You guys are doing great; don’t let anybody intimidate you,’” Liam added. “There were two people who shook their heads and were like, ‘no.’”

The students organized their walk-out with the help of faculty members Andillon Del Pesco, Caroline Massie and Chris McElligott.

Henson, the language arts teacher who stayed with the students outside, had her own reason for the protest: Her son was one of the students at Central Catholic who was hiding in the bathroom thinking the school was being attacked.

Eighth-grade students at Kentucky Avenue School Maia Stern and Annabelle Peters. Photo by Ann Belser.

Annabelle Peters, also an eighth-grader, said she really became aware of gun violence after the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill. She said her father gave her the advice to place books in her backpack and place it in front of her.

“I’ve always just looked around and thought, ‘where can I hide in case there was something,'” she said.

Seventh-grader Noah Nixon’s family belonged to Congregation Dor Hadash in Squirrel Hill, one of the three congregations that were located in the Tree of Life. He noted that the shooter was specifically targeting his congregation because of its support of immigrants.

Annabelle described her experience of being a child whose route to school takes her past the scene of that mass shooting:

“I went from seeing groups of people walking out of there, to fences around it, and flowers and just all of the stuff. It was just very scary.”

Mabel Wagner, a sixth-grader from Brighton Heights, said that there had been a drive-by shooting down the hill from their home.

Kentucky Avenue School language arts teacher Tara Henson talks with middle school students as they protest gun violence. Photo by Ann Belser.

The students have developed nuanced views of gun control and the government regulations that are needed.

“I think that it is way too easy to get a gun, especially an assault rifle. Those should be in the military,” Maia said.

Seventh-grader Axel Julian said he understood that people may want to collect vintage guns, but he did not think they should be able to be fired.

Nora O’Connell, an eighth-grader who earned a Scouts rifle shooting merit badge, said she understands why women might want to carry a gun when walking at night. “Especially nowadays, you never know what’s going to happen.” But, she added, it should be a pistol, not an assault rifle.

And Ray Valentine Lanza talked about how hunters use single-shot rifles, not semi-automatics.

These young people have also thought about the need for background checks for both criminal records and mental illness.

Maia pointed out that the shooter in Nashville had a diagnosed mental illness.

“There should be very extensive background checks for people with a past history of criminal records and mental illnesses that play a large part in what they will do with a firearm,” Soren said.

Ann Belser is the owner of Print, a newspaper covering Pittsburgh's East End communities. After receiving a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she moved to Squirrel Hill and was a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 20 years where she covered local communities, county government, courts and business.