It was a moment of sheer terror that surely none of the hundreds of kids flooding the corridors for the end of the school day will ever forget. One moment, 17-year-old Courtlin Arrington — already accepted to college for the fall, with dreams of becoming a nurse — was seen with another teen student, a wide receiver on the football team. Then came a loud pop as a bullet went right through Courtlin’s heart, ending her life way too short of adulthood.
“The last thing I told them was ‘I love you’ and have a blessed day at school,” Courtlin’s mom, Tynesha Tatum, who has another son and daughter in the same high school, told the Birmingham News. “That was at 7:45 a.m…At 3:45 p.m., I got a call that my baby got shot.”
On Wednesday, Courtlin’s schoolmates — her murder still ringing in their ears — are planning to walk out of school and protest the lack of safety for teenagers trying to grow up in the most gun-crazed nation on the planet. If you follow the news, it’s almost certain that you’ve already heard about the National School Walkout Day, which has become — rightfully so — a huge story from coast to coast. But it’s almost a lock that you haven’t heard at all about the loss of Courtlin Arrington.
This isn’t Parkland, Florida, where the mass shooting of 17 kids in the upscale Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School upended the world of students who’d been raised to expect the best things in life — and thus triggered a social revolution that is only starting to grow. No, Courtlin Arrington was killed by a handgun inside Huffman High School in Birmingham, Ala., in the kind of struggling urban district where kids have grown all too accustomed to hardship, even to violence.
Even so, it was somewhat shocking that a shooting inside a school classroom received virtually no national coverage — the only detailed reporting I could find about Courtlin, her family and her lost aspirations were in the local Birmingham media — since it took place so shortly after Parkland, in a moment where President Trump’s random flip-flops on school safety and guns, the machinations of the NRA, and rising student activism were the lead story on cable news.
Of course, one death may seem less impactful than one of the 10 largest mass shootings in U.S. history, but tell that to Courtlin’s classmates who will be traumatized by the sound of that fatal gunshot for the rest of their lives. There’s no definitive way to know how much of the ignoring of her story was simply fatigue, in a nation where gun deaths remain off the charts, and how much is because both Courtlin and her alleged killer are African-Americans.
All one can say with 100 percent certainty is that America should be ashamed for not paying more attention to the loss of such a beautiful life.
That gap also points to a hole in events like Wednesday’s National School Walkout and the possibly even bigger March for Our Lives that originated from the kids in Parkland and is slated for Saturday, March 24. There’s clearly an enthusiasm gap between suburban high schools that look like Parkland — where large protests are expected — and urban classrooms where violence, from guns and otherwise, has long been a fact of life. There, journalists are not finding apathy, exactly, but something more like measured enthusiasm around the issue of school safety, tempered by an ironic sense of … where’s everyone been all these years?
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“We have a lot of dying in our community, and no one is paying attention,” Philadelphia high school student Kaiyah Taylor told my colleague Kristen A. Graham, noting there was no media coverage of any kind when her brother’s friend was recently gunned down at the end of her block. It’s not an anecdotal gap; the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention looked at gun deaths over a 12-year period starting in 2002 and found that black kids are 10 times more likely to be killed by a gun than white kids. Yet despite the well-founded cynicism among black teens, a large number are planning to take part in the National School Walkout.
That would be great news. It would mean an opportunity to start a national conversation that could finally put kids from affluent high schools and those from struggling neighborhoods on the same page. Clearly, the ideas that are being pushed by the Parkland kids and their allies — including an assault rifle ban and raising the minimum age for all gun purchases to 21 — are an important start, but the problems in school districts like Philadelphia or Birmingham need a much more holistic approach.
Take the murder of Courtlin Arrington. Some of the proposals floating around the current zeitgeist — like the higher purchase age — might have helped stem the flow of weaponry that allowed a 17-year-old get his hands on a gun. But other calls for action — like more school safety officers — might matter little; there were three on the Huffman campus when the shooting occurred.
What would have really helped would have been a simple lack of neglect; Birmingham officials conceded that neither of the two metal detectors at Huffman High School were turned on the day that Courtlin was shot. Arming teachers is both a really bad idea and a really simplistic one, but the things that are hard — grown-ups running our schools better, fully funding them, and tackling the more complex sociology of urban crime (some friends say the shooter took a gun to Huffman because he’d been robbed the day before) — probably won’t happen without a mass movement.
Remarkably, the seeds for just such an uprising have been planted — not only in the aftermath of Parkland but in places like West Virginia and Oklahoma, where teachers are getting mad as hell over years of government neglect of schools (and, thus, our children) and are rising up en masse. A national movement linking the very real concerns of well-off kids, their less privileged peers, and their teachers fighting for schools that will be truly safe and nurturing — a concept that is not limited to curbing AR-15 massacres — could indeed be revolutionary.
That revolution would come too late for Courtlin, whose funeral will take place at noon on March 24, the same hour as the March for Our Lives, the same weekend she was supposed to be attending her senior prom. “We don’t want her death to be in vain,” her grandfather told the News. “We don’t want another parent to have to go through this ever.”
It’s striking that while children across America are planning to walk out of schools for 17 minutes in honor of the Parkland dead, students in Birmingham will be leaving school for 18 minutes — one extra minute to remember Courtlin Arrington. If kids around the country want their school-safety movement to really succeed, I would urge them to also take this extra minute — and then get to work on forging new ties across community lines. A social revolution that follows the sad example of the media and ignores Courtlin — and so many lost children just like her — is doomed to fall short.