Neal meets with Pittsfield students on how to 'turn outrage into public policy' on guns

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PITTSFIELD — A week ago, hundreds of city high school students walked out of Pittsfield and Taconic high schools in solidarity with a mounting national movement in response to the Feb. 14 shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Some held signs, some wrote to Congress, collectively calling for reviews of background check procedures, gun control regulations and school security measures at the local, state and national levels.

On Monday, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, returned to the Berkshires to meet with some of the rising young activists and discuss how to "turn the outrage into public policy."

In the library of Pittsfield High School, Neal met with 22 students from both PHS and Taconic. Joining them were Pittsfield Public Schools Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless, PHS Principal Matthew Bishop, incoming Berkshire District Attorney Paul Caccaviello, Pittsfield School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon and member Cynthia Taylor and local members of the press. The meeting was initially scheduled for Friday, but postponed due to a regional snowstorm.

The congressman began the Monday afternoon by meeting by stating how he is open to considering "sensible proposals" which, he said, does not include "taking guns away from responsible sportsmen and hunters." He then listed off policies and proposals he supported, ranging from universal background checks to allowing for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research public health implications regarding gun violence.

Neal then opened up the floor for nearly 45 minutes of discussion with the teens. The students sought a range of information, from an articulation of the commonwealth's current gun regulations to what's being done about illegal arms sales. They suggested that there be more training, check-ins and regular renewal procedures for existing legal gun owners. They also questioned whether mental health background checks would curb violence or create stigma.

"How do we get ahead of [gun violence and mass shootings], if we focus on mental health versus gun control?" asked Pittsfield High School sophomore Aviva Skoblow.

Among the refrains in Neal's narrative with the students was the need for people to look for and report warning signs and "red flags," such as erratic behavior or threatening social media posts. He also called for a need to address the factors that contribute to such behavior, such a trauma, substance abuse, poverty and other social determinants of health and well-being.

Asked what it would take to see some turnaround and action on some of his party's suggested policies, Neal told The Eagle, "We need to hear from Speaker Ryan," referring to the speaker of the House of Representatives, who is a Republican.

When the students asked Neal for suggestions for next steps, he suggested they talk to the District Attorney's Office, School Committee members, local law enforcement, as well as those opposed to stricter gun regulations.

"It wouldn't hurt to hear from the NRA," Neal told the students. He suggested that members of the National Rifle Association might help them gain insight on the stances and proposals relative to firearm sales and the Second Amendment.

Pittsfield High School junior Ronny Brizan said that for the most part, he felt that Neal offered the group "good answers," although he wasn't entirely satisfied with the congressman's response to his question about what to do for people who carry guns because of others hurting them or threatening to hurt them.

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"I reject the idea that we should suggest that the good guys with guns should outnumber the bad guys with guns," said Neal.

Brizan said that this notion still doesn't address the legitimate safety concerns that some people have against predators and abusers.

But overall, the students seemed grateful to have the undivided attention of a U.S. legislator.

"It's reassuring to know someone is on our side," said Taconic High School senior Lynsey Aldam.

The visit also gave the students from both schools the motivation to continue to work together on a unified front. After their meeting with Neal, the students stayed in the room to discuss their next steps, which include a March 14 demonstration being planned at Park Square and joining other groups from the region on March 24 for the "March for Our Lives" in Washington, D.C.

They're discussing further organizing, fundraising and letter-writing among other strategies to push for policy changes.

In the meantime, school district officials are responding to the students' questions and need for more information.

Pittsfield High School Principal Matthew Bishop said over the next two days, teachers and administrators will be reviewing with students school handbook emergency procedures as well as discussing how to improve their school climate to help students feel better connected, engaged and healthy.

Superintendent McCandless also thanked the students for their efforts and encouraged them to keep active through their campaigns, attendance at School Committee meetings and exercising their right to vote.

Since many of the organizers are seniors, he also encouraged the young men and women to "keep this same fire" as they move on to college campuses and careers.

Congressman Neal later acknowledged the students by tweeting, "These students will certainly be the ones to inspire & create real change."

Jenn Smith can be reached at, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.


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