Durham County

From no Trump t-shirts allowed to gun control, it's not cool to be conservative teen

Students take part in a national school walkout in support of tougher gun-control laws Wednesday, March 14, 2018. In North Carolina, some conservative teens say, despite a Republican president and Congress, it's getting harder for them to express their political views in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting.
Students take part in a national school walkout in support of tougher gun-control laws Wednesday, March 14, 2018. In North Carolina, some conservative teens say, despite a Republican president and Congress, it's getting harder for them to express their political views in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting. Joe Ahlquist

It had been a long day for Raymond Palma, but the Riverside High School junior was finally home.

He walked through the door of his house near downtown Durham at 9:48 p.m. after a baseball game. Palma pitches for the Riverside Pirates and plays a little right field, too.

All day Wednesday, American high schoolers had walked out of their classrooms, demonstrating a collective desire to end school shootings.

The Pirates lost to Chapel Hill High 7-0. And Palma did not participate in the Riverside walkout. Instead, the walkouts at Riverside and across the country, left him feeling apart.

“I didn't want to join a mass of people just to join them,” Palma said. “Also knowing many Riverside people, I would assume that at least a good amount of the people that walked out were doing so to get out of class.”

Palma is the founder of the Durham County Teenage Republicans and the Riverside High School Republican Club. He's also the diversity outreach coordinator for the North Carolina Teenage Republicans (N.C. TARS), many of whose members feel outnumbered by their liberal peers and say it's getting harder to openly express their beliefs.

“This one firestorm of an issue sweeps over a nation … all of a sudden it's like, it's like the trendy thing to do,” Palma said. “Whenever that happens, I feel like it's – I wouldn’t say superficial, but – scraping the top and not diving deeper into the root cause of the issues.”

'Afraid of blowback'

Last fall, a Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics survey of voters 18 to 29 found nearly two thirds, 60 percent, would prefer a Democratically controlled Congress over the current Republican majority.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, N.C. TARS President Lauren Brown sometimes wore T-shirts supporting Donald Trump.

“My principal confronted me and told me to take off my shirts – not to wear them to school again – because they offended too many people,” Brown said. “Everyone was wearing Hillary shirts, though.”

Brown said it's difficult for conservative teens to speak up in a social media age dominated by liberal teens.

“Any teenager,” she said, may be reluctant to counter beliefs held and circulated by the people in their daily lives when “they're afraid of blowback, via passive-aggressive texts or social media.”

Brown attends West Montgomery High School, about a 30-minute drive east of Charlotte, where she said the majority of students express liberal political attitudes in class and in the halls. “[Conservative] teenagers are afraid of spreading their opinions,” she said.

The superintendent of Montgomery County Schools, Dr. Dale Ellis, responded to Brown's claim by email.

“Montgomery County Schools and the administration at West Montgomery High School follows the guidance to schools from the Supreme Court on the topic of clothing and the First Amendment of the Constitution,” Ellis wrote. “As long as the clothing does not constitute a disruption to the educational environment, the clothing is allowed. We have always followed this guidance and we always will.”

According to Brown, students sporting Hillary Clinton wear were not instructed to change their wardrobe choices.

“I was pretty enraged,” Brown said.

N.C. TARS member Chason Gaines, a senior at Chatham Central High School, said it's easy to express conservative views in his hometown of Bear Creek. "It's a lot different from when you live in Chapel Hill," he said.

But Gaines does think the national media coverage, like that of the school walkouts, is moving away from his political affiliations.

“When you protest, you're supposed to be upholding constitutional rights,” he said. “But they're trying to get rid of a basic right – the Second Amendment.”

This week survivors of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting appeared on “60 Minutes.” The survivors turned activists have raised over $3 million in support of firearm regulations advocacy efforts and helped to spur legislative changes limiting gun ownership in Florida.

“I think a lot of it has to do with pop culture,” Gaines said.

N.C. TARS member Jack Lambert, 16, of Midland, is a junior at Central Cabarrus High School. He carries coffee in a "Proud Republican" mug and posts political commentary on social media

“I've been called every name in the book and had some really ugly comments made to me.," he said. "You must be racist, because, you're supporting Donald Trump and hate poor people. Things along those lines."

Trump carried 57.7 percent of the vote in Cabarrus County in 2016. But Lambert said at least half of his friends lean left despite their having right-leaning parents.

'You can do the math'

In Durham, Michael Fader, a junior at Durham School of the Arts, did walk out but said he did so to honor those killed, not to support strict gun control, like his classmates who carried signs promoting anti-gun messages.

“You take away the rifles, the next school shooting will be done with a pistol,” Fader said.

Last month state House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican, announced appointees to the House Select Committee on School Safety which is expected to consider arming teachers.

Fader thinks that's a good idea.

Given even the fastest possible 911 response time, Fader explained, and that “the average person can shoot about two bullets per second … You can do the math. … We should arm teachers.”

Like the members of N.C. TARS, Fader does not talk much about his conservatism with his classmates.

“Honestly, they're really too liberal,” he said.

Fader could not point to any other student participating in his school's walkout he thought might share his stance on gun control.

But he suspected some students in the cafeteria may have. School administrators prohibited reporters from entering that space.

'A broad brush'

Despite not walking out, Riverside's Palma does not support arming teachers.

“I believe that would absolutely not be a good idea,” he said. “I like to believe we're going to be a new generation of Republicans.”

The night was cool as the teenager stood in his yard.

“A lot of times, our current elected officials do not represent us [young people] in the right manner,” he said.

He paused to finish his thought.

“And paint us with a broad brush – as the same as them.”

And with that, he went inside to bed.

Colin Warren-Hicks: 919-419-6636
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