Liz Romrell approached the microphone at the Utah town hall held by Parkland students who had survived a mass shooting at their Florida high school. Nervously, she read the question she had typed out on her phone.
“My high school,” she said, “has resisted the idea of creating a club in support of gun reform because it’s ‘too blatantly political.’ Because of this, how can I have the most effective impact on my fellow students?”
Romrell, 17, explained that she had wanted to form an affiliate March for Our Lives group at Timpanogos High School in the heart of conservative Utah County. The club adviser there, she said, waved off the idea before she had even submitted an application. She said he told her the group was partisan, controversial and wouldn’t be approved.
“You can’t allow them to do that,” responded one of the panelists.
“Your school doesn’t define you,” said another.
They encouraged Romrell to form a community group outside of the classroom instead. And so she did.
Two months after the town hall, Romrell has started Students Advocating for Safer Schools, which has members from four campuses in the Orem area. She likes the club’s freedom to make its own rules and not be tied down by school policies or requirements.
“It’s something that we can expand into a much larger thing,” she said. “We’re not powerless here. We have the ability to speak up and participate.”
Last week, as The Salt Lake Tribune was reporting this story, the school’s principal, Joe Jensen, told Romrell she could form the group at Timpanogos High after all. She has decided not to — since the deadlines for forming school clubs have passed — and will continue with her outside group. Jensen declined to comment.
Kimberly Bird, spokeswoman for Alpine School District, said she believes the adviser who told Romrell not to bother with an application last May misunderstood or “maybe wasn’t aware of” the districtwide policy on clubs that was updated last year. It does not limit what types of groups can be formed, only that they “unite students with their peers.”
At neighboring Mountain View High, for instance, there’s a Young Democrats club. So any assertion that Romrell’s group was “too political” doesn’t align with policy or other schools in the district, Bird added.
According to Utah law, too, school districts cannot block clubs based on topic or ideology. (This was tested in the 1990s when East High in Salt Lake City tried to ban a gay-straight alliance.)
“You cannot discriminate,” said state Rep. Joel Briscoe, a Democrat and former teacher and school board member. “I want them to trust the kids. And I want the system to allow these students to have the ability to participate as the young adults that they are.”
Jeniel Zimmerman, 17, a senior at Mountain View High, also attended the March for Our Lives town hall in July and heard Romrell ask her question to the Parkland students. When she got home, Zimmerman sent Romrell a message: “Let’s start a community group.”
The two met, came up with a name and drafted a mission statement. Students Advocating for Safer Schools, Zimmerman said, seeks to include student voices from various political viewpoints, promote ways to make campuses more secure with a focus on gun control, bolster anti-bullying programs and push for the district to hire more psychologists and therapists.
"Safety is not political," she said. “Just because you aren’t a victim of school violence doesn’t mean there isn’t real fear. But there are reasonable precautions we can take."
Currently, the group, which they call SASS for short, has five members, including one student taking classes online and another at Brigham Young University. One is Republican. Another is Libertarian. Two are Democrats. And the fifth is unaffiliated. They met for the first time in August and plan to start recruiting this month.
At both Romrell’s and Zimmerman’s high schools, there have been shooting threats made on social media in the last year. Before school started at Mountain View last month, a student posted on Instagram that it would be “the first and last day” of the year for kids there, Zimmerman said. At Timpanogos High, the administrators held a lockdown drill during the first week but didn’t initially specify that it was just an exercise and not an active situation, Romrell said.
"It was terrifying," Romrell said. “They don’t know what it’s like to hear about kids your age about to graduate, about to start their lives, being killed.”
Romrell said frustration over the club adviser led her to ask her question at the town hall. Now, it’s the frustration over what she sees as the inaction at her school and others to address safety that’s made her dedicated to continuing her community club.
“They’re trying to stop us from making change,” one of the panelists told her. “Keep moving. Keep fighting.”