First-grader Ava Olsen walked onto her school’s playground on a late September afternoon. Her best friend was Jacob Hall, the shortest student in their Townville Elementary School class and the boy Olsen had decided to marry after they grew up. Townville, South Carolina has a population of just under 4000.
As Olsen walked outside, a 14-year-old former student drove up to the playground and exited the vehicle, opening fire on the school yard. Olsen’s teacher was shot in the shoulder and another classmate was shot in the foot. Hall was also struck by a bullet. He died three days later.
Olsen was tormented by what she had witnessed that day. She was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and switched to home-schooling, too terrified to return to the place where her best friend’s life had begun ending. Her younger brother, Cameron Olsen, still attended Townville Elementary, and Ava feared for his life every day, as well as the lives of the millions of children who still spent their days in classrooms.
On a summer morning in 2017, Olsen decided to do something. “Dear Mr. President,” she wrote at the top of a sheet of notebook paper as she sat at her kitchen table. She wrote down her experience from the prior September. “I hate guns,” she wrote. “One ruined my life and took my best friend. I don’t want that to ever happen again. Are you going to keep kids safe?” She concluded her message pleading, “Please, keep kids safe from guns.”
Olsen’s letter, dated Aug. 23, can be read in its entirety here.
Just after Christmas later that year, she had a letter marked with the official White House seal in her hands. In the letter, dated Dec. 19, President Donald Trump offered condolences and prayers from himself and First Lady Melania Trump. “Schools are places where children learn and grow with their friends. Their halls should be free of fear. It is my goal as President to make sure that children in America grow up in safe environments, giving them the best opportunity to realize their full potential,” the letter read.
Olsen was reassured by the letter, but a few days later, she commented to her mother that “he didn’t say how he could keep kids safe.” She wanted more, so she wrote again.
She first thanked the President for his reply and prayers. Then, “If you have the time, I have some ideas to help keep kids and schools safe. Sometimes people who live through a school shooting have better ideas,” she wrote. The next page and a half of her letter listed out six of her ideas, ranging from school safety to informing the public to caring for victims. She ended her letter saying, “I know these ideas would cost money, and I could help people in charge of money not to waste it, but use it for good things to help kids. I can help with that too, or if you need any more ideas to help kids. I want to use my voice to help.”
Olsen’s second letter, dated Jan. 8, can be read in its entirety here. As of press time, she is awaiting response.
Olsen’s story shows the effects that America’s gun violence has on children who live through school shootings. Children in single-digit ages are being diagnosed with traumatic disorders because they’ve seen their classmates’ blood spilled onto the grounds and floors where they’re supposed to be growing up and learning. It’s important because children are being killed, prevented from growing up and living full lives.
Olsen, now 8, recognized this and took action to change it, writing to the President. She thanked him when he responded with sympathy but knew that this wasn’t enough. So, she gave him policy suggestions. These suggestions aren’t ready to be voted into law by Congress, obviously, since they were written by a girl with virtually no political knowledge and experience, but each one of them has an important foundation. At their core, Olsen asked for schools to have better protections and security measures, better processes of teaching the public the effects of school shootings, and better methods of coping for school shooting victims.
Olsen’s suggestions to Trump, as well as her offer to help further, are more than anything Trump has done to prevent school shootings and protect children during his time in office. The main gun policy he established during his current past year in office was a revoking of Obama-era checks on people with mental illness. Olsen’s letters calling for change also hold more than the tweets from the President offering thoughts and prayers. While it’s certainly reassuring to receive thoughts and prayers during tragic times, concrete policies that prevent future tragedy are more reassuring and should always accompany these thoughts and prayers. Olsen knew this, which is why she wrote back to the White House.
Despite Olsen’s second letter, no permanent or temporary protections were established to prevent more school shootings. As should have been expected, more happened.
In January, at Marshall County High School in Benton, Ky., a 15-year-old student killed two of his classmates and injured 12 others , as reported by National Public Radio (NPR). On Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, lost 17 people to a former student shooter, becoming one of the deadliest school shootings in American history, as reported by CBS News. As The Washington Post noted and clarified, the Parkland, Florida, shooting was the 18th time a gun has been discharged on a school campus in the first 45 days of 2018. According to FBI records via ABC News, there have been 50 mass murders or attempted mass murders at schools since the Columbine Massacre in 1999, which have resulted in 141 deaths.
This is unacceptable. Any loss of life should call for immediate discussion and resulting policy to prevent its repeating. Three years before Columbine in the United States, Australia experienced a mass shooting in which 35 people were killed. The nation passed regulations in response and has not had a mass shooting since, and all gun-related deaths, both suicide and homicide, dropped rapidly.
This is the type of response that Olsen is asking for. This is the response that the survivors of Parkland, Florida, are rallying and speaking out for. The country should be listening to them. As Olsen wrote in her second letter to the president, “Sometimes people who live through a school shooting have better ideas.” It’s time to listen to those people.
It shouldn’t require underage grieving individuals, people who are still in tears after seeing their classmates’ bodies lying lifeless on the floor, to drive national policy changes to prevent the murder of innocent of children. Working to prevent the murder of innocent children should be common sense.