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The Uvalde shooting renews rage and grief in a Newtown student-turned-activist

Sarah Clements and her parents at an anti-gun violence rally in New York City in 2016.
Joe Quint
Sarah Clements and her parents at an anti-gun violence rally in New York City in 2016.

BOSTON — Every time news breaks of another mass shooting in America, it triggers Sarah Clements' anxiety and redoubles her grief and rage.

But none has rattled her quite like last week's school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

"When I first learned about the shooting," Clements says, she was "essentially blacking out."

Clements was 16 years old when a shooter killed 20 children and six educators at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012. Clements spent that morning crouching under a table and in lockdown at her high school about a mile away. She was terrified for herself — and for her mother, a second-grade teacher at Sandy Hook, who was huddling with her students, trying to distract them from the gunshots being fired just a few classrooms away.

It would be hours of anguish before Clements heard that her mom was safe, and they got to tearfully reunite, even as they mourned the dozens of others who did not survive. She says so many of those memories, which she had long since blocked out, came rushing back after the shooting at Uvalde.

"To see faces of the children, these primal screams from parents who realize their kid hasn't come out of the building, that are so starkly similar to what we experienced — that my brain has maybe been trying to protect me from — seeing those forced in front of me, it's really a shock to your system," she says.

That shock, Clements says, quickly turned to anger.

"It's the anger that so many of us tried so hard [to help pass gun control legislation] so that another community wouldn't have to experience what we did," she says, choking back tears.

Sarah Clements, and her mother, Abbey Clements, attend a White House signing of the 2016 executive actions aimed at reducing gun violence. Abbey Clements, a teacher at Sandy Hook School during the 2012 shooting there, and Sarah, a student at a nearby school, have been activists ever since.
/ Courtesy of Sarah Clements
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Courtesy of Sarah Clements
Sarah Clements, and her mother, Abbey Clements, attend a White House signing of the 2016 executive actions aimed at reducing gun violence. Abbey Clements, a teacher at Sandy Hook School during the 2012 shooting there, and Sarah, a student at a nearby school, have been activists ever since.

Clements is one of many students who turned to political activism after a school shooting turned their lives upside down. They've organized walk outs, teach-ins and marches, they've lobbied lawmakers, and have even run for office. Clements co-founded a student advocacy organization, the Junior Newton Action Alliance, and has spent nearly a decade running youth summits, trainings and strategy workshops, as well as protesting, speaking out and lobbying.

She was propelled to get involved, she says, just days after the shooting, when she heard the NRA suggesting that the problem of gun violence had to do with everything except guns.

"I do vividly remember standing in my living room with my parents and seeing [CEO] Wayne Lapierre from the NRA say this is not about guns," Clements says.

Indeed, the NRA's first statement after the shooting blamed politicians for exploiting tragedy, the media for rewarding killers with attention, prosecutors for not going after enough violent criminals, and video games and movies for glorifying violence.

What really got her, Clements says, was Lapierre's call for armed security at every school, because "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

"That just ignited something in me," Clements says. "It was such an offensive remark."

Clements says she feels the same fury now, hearing calls for arming teachers, even as reports emerge of bad decisions made in Uvalde by law enforcement.

"If even trained military and police officers are the very top of their profession could not do that, asking educators to have a firearm and do that is nonsense," she says.

Her mom, still a teacher in Newtown and also an activist, was among those protesting the NRA annual convention in Houston days after the Uvalde shooting, and promoting tighter restrictions on guns as the way make schools safer.

"We have too many guns in our country," said Abbey Clements. "Teachers are walking in every day, crying, having to field questions from students, but we don't know what to say. And it's wrong."

Sarah Clements, a student at Georgetown University from Newtown, Conn., represents Georgetown Against Gun Violence at a rally of university students organized by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, on Capitol Hill on Oct. 6, 2015.
The Washington Post / The Washington Post via Getty Images
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The Washington Post via Getty Images
Sarah Clements, a student at Georgetown University from Newtown, Conn., represents Georgetown Against Gun Violence at a rally of university students organized by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, on Capitol Hill on Oct. 6, 2015.

Just like Newtown mobilized the Clementses, a new wave of student and survivor activism has been bubbling up since Uvalde. But the past 10 years have shown that momentum tends to wane just as quickly, which only adds to the heartbreak for activists like them. In their 10 years of work, they've seen some wins at the state level, like tougher background checks, waiting periods and red flag laws, but nothing yet from Congress.

For Sarah Clements, it's been gut-wrenching to watch. After Sandy Hook, she says, she was crushed that the murder of 20 children and six teachers was not enough to compel Congress to pass the universal background check legislation that came up for a vote. Now she says, she's starting to believe there may never be enough.

"I think that there's not some number of shootings or some number of bodies that will ever be enough for the people in power that refuse to take action, and I don't know why," she says, her voice caving to tears.

"It's so infuriating" Clements says, that the same politicians who are cowed by the NRA and refuse to pass gun laws that the majority of Americans support, are the same ones saying, "stop politicizing what happened."

"I try so hard not to be jaded," she says. But having seen so many mass shootings prompt promises of action that peter out, and feeling like even democracy itself is under fire right now, Clements says she struggles to find cause for optimism.

Sarah Clements and her family attend a rally in New York City for gun violence prevention, one of many demonstrations she has participated in during the decade since the Sandy Hook School shooting turned her into an activist.
/ Courtesy of Sarah Clements
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Courtesy of Sarah Clements
Sarah Clements and her family attend a rally in New York City for gun violence prevention, one of many demonstrations she has participated in during the decade since the Sandy Hook School shooting turned her into an activist.

"I used to be able to answer this question," she says, her voice cracking again with emotion. "Like 10 years ago, I would talk about how there's this growing movement, there's young people who are standing up, who are walking out of their schools in protest. Even five years ago, I probably would have had a litany of things that made me hopeful. And right now I'm just not."

Still, Clements says she will keep doing the work, both because she sees it as a way to honor those who were killed, and because, as frustrating as it can be, doing that work, or "channeling grief into action" as she puts it, can be therapeutic in itself.

"To actually stand in the halls of Congress, for example, and be heard and actually have power for a minute," she says, "you begin to realize that you need to keep doing this, you have to keep going, you have to tell your story to whoever will listen, because you don't want other people to experience something like this."

"It does take a toll on your soul," she says.

And it is maddening to feel that the onus is on students themselves to drive change. But eventually, she insists, change will come from her generation, those who grew up hiding under desks in active shooter drills, and the ever-growing number of those who hid from actual shooters as well.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.