Most of the students at Arthur Richards Junior High raised their hands when asked if they’d ever seen a gun, indicative of violent crime on St. Croix, but all of them signed a pledge not to use guns to settle disputes, signaling that the future may be brighter.
The Arthur Richards students took the anti-gun pledge Thursday morning during a rally led by the Stop the Bleeding Coalition and the V.I. Police Department.
The Student Pledge Against Gun Violence is a national program to recruit young people, through their own decisions, to play a role in reducing gun violence. Melody Rames, the public information officer at the V.I.P.D., was aware of the program and got permission from Acting Police Commissioner Raymond Hyndman to bring it to the territory.
Also joining the drive to get students to reject guns and gun violence are school security officers, the Weed and Seed program, and Project Safe Neighborhood.
Thursday, facing an auditorium of some 200 seventh graders, Rames asked how many of them had ever seen a gun – not on TV, not on a police officer, but for real, in life. Hands shot up throughout the hall.
"That’s not unusual," she said. "Nationwide, about 90 percent of young people have seen guns."
Equally disturbing was the response to the question of how many of them had been affected by gun violence, either losing a friend or family member, or knowing someone who did. Easily half the hands remained in the air.
Rames explained the pledge to the students going through each section. It is voluntary, she told the students, no one was going to stand over them and make them sign it.
By taking the pledge, the students promised to never carry a gun to school or use one to resolve a dispute, and to use their influence with their friends to keep them from using guns to resolve disputes.
Cheryl Francis, president and founder of Stop the Violence, and wife of Lt. Gov. Gregory Francis, told the young audience that there are no logical reasons to carrying a gun, that that decision is itself the problem.
"Everytime you pick up a gun, you know that you’ve already put your life at risk," Francis said.
While the students told her about being afraid of someone else with a gun, or not wanting to be a punk, she replied that while "we can all want to be ‘not a punk,’ we can all want to be the one who’s not scared." The reality is that every time gunfire echoes across the island there are two losers – the shooter and the victim.
"Who’s going to be the one crying for you?" she asked, raising the specter of mothers mourning their slain children.
She read a poem written by a man now serving a life prison sentence for a homicide. The poem asks the students, "Who’s really the loser?" contrasting the victim and the jailed shooter, both with no life.
After the presentations, Rames led the students in reciting the pledge. Then the young people rushed to the side aisles where it was posted and signed before heading back to class.