Grace VanderWaal, Parkland Student Sofie Whitney Talk School Safety & Healing Power of Music Before March for Our Lives

 Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
Grace Vanderwaal performs at Slim's on Feb. 20, 2018 in San Francisco.  

"Just keep doing what you’re doing," VanderWaal tells the leaders of this weekend's march.

The Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida felt like a societal turning point.

In the wake of the latest in a seemingly unending string of deadly gun-related incidents at American schools, the survivors of the attack that took the lives of 14 students and 3 teachers said, "Enough is enough." They spoke out, and spoke up, defying elected leaders who said it was "too soon" to talk about amending the nation's gun laws and challenging them to stand up to the powerful pro-gun National Rifle Association lobby.

After watching their friends and classmates die at the hands of a shooter wielding a semi-automatic military-style AR-15 rifle, a group of MSD students also vowed to take the fight to the nation's capital. On Saturday (March 24), the inspiring teen leaders of the #NeverAgain movement will join an estimated 500,000 at the March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C., which will be echoed at nearly 800 sister marches around the nation and the world.

In advance of the March, Billboard talked with America's Got Talent winner singer Grace VanderWaal, 14 -- who recently began attending public school -- as well as MSD survivor Sofie Whitney, about school safety, the healing power of music and the beauty of seeing your generation stand up. The following is an edited version of our discussion.

Before this shooting happened had you ever worried about whether you were safe at school? 

Whitney: That was always a possibility, because growing up in this generation, there have been so many school shootings -- like Columbine and Sandy Hook -- but my school always felt really safe. Parkland was voted the safest school in Florida last year. It’s just bizarre to think that it happened at one of the safest places in the country.

VanderWaal: I completely, completely agree. It’s just bizarre and ridiculous that we’ve let it escalate to this point where students are afraid for their safety. Schools should be safe. School should be about fun and education and kids shouldn’t be worrying about this. 

Did they have safety or lockdown drills at Parkland before this? 

Whitney: Just about three months ago, the teachers went through a huge training process about what would happen in this situation. We updated all of our codes… we couldn’t have been more prepared for this kind of situation. 

VanderWaal: At my school we only did fire drills, and right after this tragedy we had to run an intruder drill -- which was obviously hard for everyone, knowing the circumstances.

How does it make you feel going to school, learning, playing sports, the things teenagers are supposed to do, but also having these military-style safety drills? Does that strike you as bizarre?

Whitney: Absolutely. No kid should have to worry about this kind of thing going to school. No person should have to worry about getting hurt anywhere they go, but especially a place where you’re supposed to feel safe, a place you’re supposed to go every day.

Sofie, I’ve seen videos of you playing music in the weeks since the shooting. Is that something you turn to to help ease some of the anxiety of what’s happened? 

Whitney: I definitely think music helps. I’ve been singing since I was 8 years old, and I’ve been in drama my whole life. When you sing, it’s because you can’t say it -- so that’s kind of how I felt in the last couple weeks. Obviously we’ve been so outspoken with what we’ve been saying, but sometimes you just want to let it out emotionally when you’re singing. 

What songs have you been playing that have meant something to you?

Whitney: I mostly just do covers. I haven’t had a lot of time recently to write new music. The day of the shooting I went home -- and I probably shouldn’t have been trying to sing sad songs, because obviously that was a bad idea -- but I sang "Never Let Me Go" by Florence + the Machine. I say I sang, but mostly I was crying. That song has been super important to me in the last couple weeks. 

It’s obviously much different, but Grace, one of the ways the world got to know you is through the very personal songs you wrote that helped you through some emotionally challenging times. Have you used music in the way that Sofie is describing to deal with adversity?

VanderWaal: Absolutely. I thought [Sofie's] words were so beautiful and perfect to explain that feeling. I’ve obviously never ever experienced something like this tragedy, and I think music comforts people and I think people need to be comforted [at times like this]. 

Grace, is there a message  of encouragement or support you’d like to share with the students of Marjorie Stoneman to express how you feel watching what they’ve been doing and saying?

VanderWaal: I think that [they've been] so beautiful and brave. I can’t believe this has happened, but I also can’t believe the bravery of all the young people right now, and how inspiring and beautiful [it is] to see people stepping up to make a difference for a more peaceful tomorrow. Just keep doing what you’re doing. It’s made me so proud of my generation [watching] how people have stood up. For people to take a stand -- especially young people, and especially to organize a march -- it really makes me proud of my generation. And I don’t think they should stop. I think we should keep going and keep being brave.

What would you like to see the government do about gun control in the wake of this tragedy? What is your scenario for what you hope this will look like on March 25?

Whitney: I don’t think it can all get done just from the March because there are obviously people in office now who we can’t trust to carry out the sensible gun laws that we want. But we started a petition (at marchforourlives.com) and we’d like to ban assault weapons like the one used in our school and high-capacity magazines that allow shooters to shoot hundreds of bullets in a few minutes.

We also want universal background checks, which will tighten the amount of people that will be able to get guns and won’t allow people who are mentally unstable receive guns. We’d also like to close the loophole that allows people to buy guns using private sales so they don’t have to go through background checks.

(Ed note: Following this interview, Florida's governor signed a new slate of laws that raises the minimum age ot purchase a gun from 18 to 21, bans bump stocks, gives police more power to seize weapons and ammo from those deemed mentally unfit, and provides $67 million to help arm teachers; the NRA quickly filed suit to block the legislation.) 

Every school shooting is too many, but it seems like the students at Stoneman Douglas are having a much larger impact on this debate this time around. Sofie, do you think it’s because you and your fellow students have been so vocal, so adamant and so precise about what they want to see happen?

Whitney: I’m going to say we come from a privileged community. We have a lot of resources in our school. We have amazing educators, and we’ve all received a really high education, and I feel like our students in particular are very eloquent when it comes to politics and government and speaking in general. That’s what made us different.

The kids at Sandy Hook were six years old. Even if they weren’t, we have a platform now that kids didn’t have five years ago, because social media controls the world and we are the experts at it.

How do you feel about the idea floated by some politicians, including the president, that the solution here is arming teachers. Does that feel like the right solution to this problem for you?

Whitney: No. Arming teachers is a ridiculous idea. We don’t want more guns in school. There was actually a teacher at my school who passed away -- his name was Scott Beigel -- and he didn’t even have enough time to close the door to get all the students in, let alone pull out a gun and start protecting them. I think it’s a bizarre idea that they think that teachers, who are being paid not enough to teach our children, and train them for the future... you expect them to start killing people? It just doesn’t make sense.

VanderWaal: It also just brings more violence into the situation  that is already so scary and violent.

Do you think your generation has the power to make this change and really turn this issue around in a meaningful way?

VanderWaal: I absolutely do. 

Whitney: Our generation has been overlooked and pushed off as lazy kids who are always on their phones. But the thing is, when we’re on our phones, we’re learning so much. Social media has connected us to all parts of the world, all parts of society. We learn about politics, entertainment, sports, basically everything you can, and we definitely can make this difference.

There have been trolls who’ve made up stories and said hurtful things about the survivors of the shooting. Does that surprise you, to see adults acting so negatively toward children who’ve already been so traumatized?

VanderWaal: I think the adults in this situation… when we’re coming out and saying everything that’s wrong, and that they need to take responsibility, and we’re saying logical points that they can’t really bring down -- it’s really pathetic to see. When people resort to anything they can do and that might be bullying, teasing, making up stories... it’s just so desperate.

Whitney: I think they’re embarrassed, because we are children, and we’re the ones that are making the difference and speaking out, and they’re probably embarrassed because they’re being outsmarted by children. 

Any last thoughts you want to share with each other?

VanderWaal: You are so smart and every point that you’ve made on this is so, so good and I’m going to be thinking about every single word that you’ve said in this interview for so long, and I’m going to bring it up to my parents and my friends. 

Whitney: I just want to thank you for using your platform to talk about it. It’s awesome that you’re a kid too and you’re going to talk about this and use your music and your talent to help us hopefully never have to experience something like this again.

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