A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Lafayette High School students spread pointed message about gun violence in wake of friend’s death

Tammy L. Lane
Special to KyForward

When Lafayette sophomore Trinity Gay died last fall, many of her friends could not find the words to express their grief and their outrage at senseless gun violence. However, three of them have since found their voice in spreading a pointed message across Lexington and beyond. “‘Reach for your dreams – not for a gun. Shoot for the stars – not people.’ It’s a corny slogan, but hopefully people get it,” said 16-year-old Shermane Cowans, now a junior at the new Frederick Douglass High School.

Shermane, Te’Osha Raglin, and Shana Berryman were classmates of Trinity’s at Lafayette, where as freshmen they developed a lasting rapport with science teacher Susan McLaughlin-Jones. The next year, they all sat together in a church balcony during a memorial service for Trinity, who had been caught in crossfire in the parking lot of a local restaurant.

Shermane Cowans
(From Left to Right) Shermane Cowans, Te’Osha Raglin, teacher Susan McLaughlin-Jones and Shana Berryman (Photo from Fayette County Public Schools)

McLaughlin-Jones noted how the prevalent community violence has spawned a fatalistic attitude among some students. “Every time this happens, it reopens the wounds so these kids are always going back to square one,” she said. “They’re almost taking it in stride because they’ve become used to it. If you think you’re going to die tomorrow, why bother doing that project that’s three weeks down the road?”

As Shermane, Te’Osha, and Shana continue to wrestle with what happened to their friend Trinity – and to far too many others in their orbit – McLaughlin-Jones serves as a sounding board and a source of strength. “I’m trying to give these girls some sense of control over their own destiny. The conversations we’ve had have been amazing,” she said. “This year they’ve been processing the grief and telling the story. Now, ‘What do you take forward and how do you change things?’”

In response, the three young women have pieced together a powerful narrative about the effects of gun violence, weaving in their own experiences and sharing about their emotional, social, and academic struggles. Since the summer, they have spoken at a Kentucky Education Association “Let’s TALK” conference, an FCPS Equity Council meeting, a Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council meeting, and at KEA’s Minority Leadership Conference. “They’ve discovered other people actually care but aren’t aware how pervasive the problem is,” McLaughlin-Jones said.

The students hope for improved school and community responses to increased gun violence. One key suggestion is for school staff to connect with teenagers early and often. “For teachers, start that bond the first day of school and love them. Then if they lose someone, you’re there for them. This can help students get their emotions out and actually talk about what they’re feeling,” Shana explained.

Driven by their campaign, Te’Osha has put aside sports and other interests for now. “I kept seeing more violence and felt like we need to do this,” she said. “I’m here to speak up for the people who can’t after losing someone. It’s bringing more joy than softball ever has – knowing I can help someone.”

McLaughlin-Jones is proud of the girls’ efforts. “They realize they’re now speaking for their peer group, which often isn’t heard,” she said.

In another challenge, McLaughlin-Jones proposed that she and the students team up to write a research paper to present to an even wider audience. Since the news of Trinity’s death went national, given her father Tyson Gay was an Olympian in track, McLaughlin-Jones expects high interest when they head to Denver, Colo., for the University Council for Educational Administration conference. The girls must pare their message to 10 minutes, but McLaughlin-Jones expects the Nov. 17 experience to be memorable. Aptly, the conference theme is “School Leaders (Up)rising as Advocates and (Up)lifting Student Voices.”

“These girls have found their voice. They have discovered that when they speak, people will listen. They have discovered their opinion matters and it’s OK to speak up,” McLaughlin-Jones said. “They have been amazed, and they have felt empowered.”

Tammy L. Lane is website editor for Fayette County Public Schools

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