'Hi mom and dad. I’m at school. There is an active shooter on campus. I am safe.'
That was the text message Kevin Trejos sent his parents on the afternoon of February 14 when a former student opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The attack would be one of the deadliest mass shootings in US history, killing 17 people and wounding 17 injured.
On Saturday, Kevin and two other survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were the surprise guests at the opening plenary of the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai moderated by Vijita Patel, trustee of the Varkey Foundation, which hosts the annual conference.
"It was scary. There were people crying. We didn't know where the shooter was. We didn't know if he was coming to our classroom next," said Kevin, 18.
"We need to improve school safety," he added, saying that the students are not trying to ban guns "because we understand it's practically impossible to do," but are working to limit the accessibility of guns to criminals or potential criminals.
The students took the stage in front of thousands of educators and policymakers for a question and answer period on the topic of gun violence and the impact on education and youth.
For Kevin, that fateful day began like any other. There was a fire drill in the morning that the students and staff completed successfully. Then, in the afternoon, the alarm sounded again.
“As we walked out of our class to go to our designated spot, we started hearing screams saying code red, code red, get in the classroom, go, go, go,” said Kevin.
Although he didn’t know code red meant there was an active shooter in the school, Kevin, followed his teacher’s directions and ended up being ushered into a closet to hide along with others.
Twenty minutes later, the teacher Kevin was with received confirmation that an active shooter was on campus.
“We were all trying to console each other as we were there," he said.
At that point, Kevin decided to contact his parents to let them know he was all right.
“I didn’t want them to be fearing for my life while I was at school and they were at work,” he said. “Once I got the confirmation, I thought, I can’t let them find out on the news. They have to find out from me. I sent them a message."
It would be nearly two hours before a swat team entered the classroom where Kevin and others were hiding in a closet to guide them to safety.
Since that fateful day, Kevin and his classmates, including Suzanne Barna and Lewis Mizen, who attended the forum yesterday, have been campaigning for gun reform in the United States.
The pupils and victims’ families have successfully lobbied their state legislators in Florida to sign The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act.
Last week, thousands of students across the US walked out of their classrooms to protest against gun violence in solidarity with Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School community. On March 24, organisers say more than 500,000 people are expected to take part in March for Our Lives in Washington DC to rally for gun control.
“Teachers are there to educate their students. They shouldn’t have to serve as the first line of defence between them and a rampant gunman on campus,” said Lewis, 17, a British student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
“It is something that shouldn’t ever happen, it’s something that needs to be stopped. These shootings have gone down as statistics now. We need to stop being desensitised to it. We need to start looking to stop it before it happens, don’t prepare for when it does.”
The students are campaigning to increase the age a consumer can buy a long gun to 21 years and reduce the amount of bullets that can be loaded into a gun at once. They also want to expand the scope of background checks on prospective gun buyers to ensure the weapons don’t land in the hand of criminals or the mentally ill.
"We want to limit the accessibility of guns to criminals and potential criminals, and we want to make sure that once they get their hands on those guns, they find it very difficult to fire indiscriminately,” said Kevin.
Suzanna said she and her peers acknowledged that gun reform would take time, but they were willing to keep up the fight for as long as it took until schools were safe.
Asked what the educators and policymakers could do to help, she replied: “One of the most important things that can be done in general is to support the youth, support their voices. If they’re trying to speak out, give them the platform to speak and give them the opportunity to advocate for a cause that they are passionate about. They can make a difference.”
Watch from 1:46:45 to hear them open up about that day