“Hands up, don’t shoot. Hands up, don’t shoot.” This chant swept through the crowds gathered in Washington, D.C., for last year’s March for Our Lives, organized by Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students in Parkland, Florida, after a mass shooting there killed 17 people. Now the chant is a refrain in a powerful new music video by Nebraska high schoolers lending their voices to the student movement against gun violence.

From nationwide school walkouts and marches to creative endeavors like this one, “students can be champions for change when they have the space to express themselves,” said Regina Moss, PhD, MPH, MCHES, associate director of public health policy and practice at APHA. This is the idea behind the youth engagement component of APHA’s Center for School, Health and Education professional development program, which has helped schools across the country implement strategies to reduce and prevent dropout.

The Center partners with schools to help remove barriers to healthy outcomes and learning and give students the tools they need to manage chronic stress and earn a high school diploma. “Among the most notable partnerships are those that engage youth as key decisionmakers. This builds young people’s agency to change harmful conditions and thrive,” said Kelly Nelson, MPH, senior program manager for the Center for School, Health and Education.

In May 2018, Moss and Nelson initiated a three-day youth engagement project at Omaha Northwest High Magnet School in Nebraska to give students a voice — through music. During the creative performing arts-focused workshop, the students learned about music theory and songwriting and produced an original song and music video addressing a social or environmental issue of their choice.

When they first met the student volunteers, Moss said, “We asked what they’re concerned about in their lives. Mental health issues surfaced. And one girl said she was at a party that weekend, where her friend was shot. Everyone in the group agreed; they wanted to use spoken word and hip-hop to talk about gun violence in their community.”

Environment affects learning, and many students face daily harsh realities, such as gun violence, which can lead to chronic stress and behavioral disruptions at school if exposure persists over an extended period of time. “Educators and communities can buffer the stressors that students face,” said Nelson. “They can help strengthen their resilience and keep them on a healthy trajectory with public health strategies that prevent and manage stress as an alternative to punitive discipline.”

One way they can do this is by giving students a healthy outlet for expressing difficult emotions and galvanizing them to advocate for social change. Writing and performing lyrics like “Get the guns under control so all the fear can go away” and “There’s no time to be silent speaking out against the violence” offered a way for the Omaha Northwest High students to heal.

Moss and Kelly presented the 4.5-minute student video at the SXSW EDU® Conference & Festival. Held March 4-7 in Austin, Texas, the annual conference focuses on innovations in teaching and learning and supports the art of engagement. The music video was well received by participants eager to talk more about how creative solutions like this can empower students and support their well-being and educational success.

The national student movement, sparked by the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and supported by projects like this, offers hope for progress on reducing gun violence in America. “Students feel a heightened obligation to do something in the face of Congressional inaction,” said Mighty Fine, director of the Center for Public Health Practice and Professional Development at APHA.

Fine is working with APHA’s Intersectional Council Gun Violence Prevention Working Group to develop a guide to help schools foster conversation around violence prevention. “In the U.S., gun violence is a major public health problem and a leading cause of premature death,” Fine said. “It affects our kids. It affects us all.”

With the approaching 20-year anniversary of the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, which killed 13 people on April 20, 1999, we expect to hear more from the youth of America on this important issue and the urgent need for Congress to pass common sense measures to reduce gun violence.

Please visit APHA’s gun violence page for more. And watch the APHA TV interview with high school students Eden Hebron, a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, and Tatiana Washington, a student in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who spoke at the 2018 Annual Meeting Opening General Session.