Paul Bandy, Steve Neville asked to visit visit school

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AZTEC — Aztec High School students had the chance to voice their concerns about school security and safety to state lawmakers on Monday.

State Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, and state Sen. Steve Neville, R-Aztec, visited the high school today to spend time with some of their younger constituents. Principal Warman Hall said the two lawmakers asked to come to the school after receiving dozens of letters from AHS students this spring.

Students in language arts classes practiced their persuasive writing skills in drafting and sending letters to local, state and national leaders in March as the school addressed school security and safety through a "walk up" event, an alternative to the national walkout movement that was a call for action regarding gun violence in schools, Hall said.

Each lawmaker received approximately 100 letters from students, many of which Bandy described as “dramatic and affecting.”

“Without exception, they mentioned that you don’t feel safe,” Bandy told a group of classes during second period in the cafeteria. “I can understand that after December.”

Aztec High School was the site of a fatal school shooting on Dec. 7, when a 21-year-old shooter killed two 17-year-old students and himself. Similar events throughout the nation have caused local, state and national leaders to re-evaluate school safety and security, and prompted discussions on the issue of gun regulations.

Bandy and Neville discussed their roles in the state Legislature and gave a short civics lesson before taking questions and comments from students.

Students asked about how state lawmakers prioritize education and school funding. They also asked about online presence and social media monitoring efforts to identify potential threats to schools and public safety, and about arming security personnel or trained school staff members.

Some students also addressed the national conversation regarding school security and school shooting trends, a perceived disconnect between the school’s administration and student body, and increasing the penalties for threats made to schools.

The students’ letters will be sent to and archived by the San Juan County Historical Society, Bandy said.

Bandy and Neville said the majority of the letters they received included requests for armed security at school, but students’ concerns were diverse.

Junior Alexis Acrey said she wrote to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos advocating against guns and armed security in schools, and junior Serena Lewis said she wrote Bandy and Neville asking for better access and resources to address the “underlying issue” of mental health.

Acrey and Lewis agreed that having a dialog with state lawmakers was beneficial.

“I think it makes it a little more hopeful that things can move on,” Acrey said after the first-period discussion. “It’s better for us to be able to tell them directly to their faces, ‘We have a problem, and we want this to be solved,’ rather than them reading our letters and saying, ‘We’ll try to help where we can.’ This actually feels like it’s personal, and they actually want to help.”

“I think it helps us who may not have a voice. (It) gives us voice,” Lewis added.

However, some students disagreed. Senior Wilson Martin voiced concerns and complaints about the school’s administration in the aftermath of the shooting, pointing to a staff shortage that left some students unattended during standardized testing and the way some administrators have handled dress code violations.

“It honestly felt pointless, because nothing is going to change,” Martin said after the second-period discussion.

The school also had resources available for students approaching voting age to continue to make their voices heard. The school’s library hosted a voter registration booth today, a bipartisan effort hosted by San Juan County Democratic and Republican parties.

Drew Degner, San Juan County Republican Party chairman, said approximately 75 students had registered to vote between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Junior Rachel Brown registered to vote during third period and said it was important to her to be able to cast a vote.

“After everything that’s happening at Aztec, I wanted to be able to be a part of the community and be able to portray what goes on in our society,” Brown said.

Megan Petersen covers business and education for the Daily Times. Reach her at 505-564-4621 or mpetersen@daily-times.com.

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