Austin Marsman (left) and Matthew Cogar held a press conference protesting a comment by Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker on student walkouts against gun violence. (Photo by Virginia Ransbottom)

Senator’s criticism of protests draws response

By: 
Virginia Ransbottom, Staff Writer

In response to a comment by Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, stating her disappointment in the adults who were encouraging demonstrations to end gun violence in schools, student organizers of local walkouts held a press conference March 28, at the Allegan District Library, demanding the senator resign from her seat and drop out of the race for Attorney General.

Allegan High School and Allegan tech center students joined a national movement with a 17-minute walkout on March 14 to advocate for stricter gun laws, school safety measures and a change in student culture.

“My peers in Allegan went a step further than a simple protest, they called on our lawmakers to take action and even invited some to attend the walkout,” said Austin Marsman, Martin High School class president who was the lead organizer of the tech center walkout. “Notably, Sen. Schuitmaker who represents the 26th District, condemned the adults in our schools for allowing us to demonstrate and said our protests, in her words, ‘gets nothing done.’

“She failed to mention gun violence or the allocation of resources to protect our schools,” Marsman said.

“A large cohort of students were disappointed in the Senator for not listening to their concerns. Instead of a walk out she advocated a “walk-up” movement.

“Walk up to the kid who sits alone at lunch and invite him to sit with your group; walk up to the kid who sits quietly in the corner of the room and sit next to her.’

“I call upon adults to do better and encourage students to interact with one another, care for their fellow classmates, and demonstrate compassion. Let’s focus on real solutions to real problems.”

Marsman said, “Social inclusion is part of the discussion, but not the sole answer.”

Allegan High School and Lake Michigan College student Matthew Cogar read a speech prepared by AHS senior class president Thomas Loftus who could not attend the press conference.

“My initial shock and confusion over the ignorant words of the state senator was replaced by annoyance and frustration upon learning of Ms. Schuitmaker’s NRA affiliation,” Cogar read. “What was seen on March 14, not only nationally, but across Allegan County, is a clear sign that this is not some small movement of a tiny demographic—to Tonya Schuitmaker, you represent us and not the NRA in the state senate.”

Showing how the senator touts her NRA membership, Marsman said she voted to clarify that state law overrules local firearms restrictions, to expand areas where concealed weapons are allowed and to authorize provisional concealed pistol permits for adults who are aged 18 to 20.

He said the senator voted against prohibiting a concealed pistol permit to those convicted of domestic violence charges, on the state sex offender’s list and the federal government “no fly” list. She was also against reimbursing school employees who purchase bulletproof vests.

The 18-year-old students said they would not vote for her and would do everything in their power to campaign against her election. In the audience, Otsego High School senior Sam Badger said he agreed with what was said and came to Allegan to show his support.

Allegan resident Ron Doest said while he was all for what the students were doing, he did not believe school was the place to debate it and thought Schuitmaker was doing a great job.

Parents and grandparents of some of the students said they were proud.

“They are mobilizing on their own, doing everything safe and working with administrators,” said Beth Loftus. “The senator’s remarks suggest they are not doing this on their own and belittles what they are doing.”

Loftus also said she didn’t think students were going to “walk up” to someone whom they felt was unstable or unsafe.

The students are planning to host a town hall meeting at a later date.

Virginia Ransbottom can be contacted at vransbottom@allegannews.com or at (269) 673-5534.

 

Editor’s note: After our April 5 issue went to press, Austin Marsman said, “Yes, we did hear back from the Senator. In an email to MLIVE, the Senator wrote: ‘I am a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, was endorsed by the NRA and voters elected me because they know I will uphold and defend our Constitutional rights and support putting dangerous criminals in prison. The horrific shooting in Florida occurred because a violent student was never held accountable, not because of law-abiding gun owners or the Second Amendment. School safety is an important priority and solutions require a comprehensive, evidenced-based approach.’”

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