It was while listening to the radio in the car driving through Concord, Mass. with his 13-year-old daughter Sophia that President M. Lee Pelton said he first heard multiple children had died in an attack in Newtown, Conn.
Just over a month after the second deadliest shooting in U.S. history, which took the lives of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Pelton recalled the memory of learning the news, and his sentiments following the event.
“It was a salient moment,” a visibly affected Pelton said, as he cleaned his eyeglass with a green cloth. “There are certain public events that occur where you remember where you were, what you were doing, as if time had just stopped or paused.”
Pelton said it was a very emotional time for him and his daughter. After learning of the tragedy he wrote a letter to the Emerson community voicing his sentiments to those affected. Upon sending the email, Pelton said he realized more action was needed.
In the wake of the shooting, Pelton began an initiative to spark campus discussions on how to best address gun violence in America and other issues surrounding the Newtown shooting, including mental health and gun accessibility.
The initiative is not specific to Emerson; Pelton has garnered the support of 255 presidents of other colleges and universities, according to Emerson’s website. In his call to action, Pelton quoted President Barack Obama who had previously asked leaders to use their power to engage citizens in an effort aimed at preventing further tragedies.
In addition to holding campus discussions, Pelton said he plans to launch a website with help from Vice President of Public Affairs Andrew Tiedemann next week. Pelton said the site will host resources for topics of discussion around gun control, a list of events colleges are hosting, and a private message forum that allows the presidential signatories to interact.
Pelton’s initiative has been met with support from his colleagues, including Associate Professor of Communication Studies Gregory Payne.
“I think as a human being and a very compassionate individual, [leading] a school founded in communication, that we as an institution take a very important step forward in trying to engage the rest of the country to look at this,” said Payne.
Payne, who spoke to the Beacon from Los Angeles where he was conducting a crisis and public policy conference, said he visited a Newtown memorial with a teacher from the Renaissance School in Boston and applauded Pelton for his multifaceted approach to the complex issue.
“Some people might say, ‘Gee, we need to take a stand with regard to the gun issue,’” said Payne. “But President Pelton said, ‘Let’s all commit ourselves to engaging a conversation in this.’ He didn’t politicize it.”
Another supporter of Pelton’s initiative, Laura Bittman — an Emerson senior visual, media, arts major who is currently finishing her last semester in Los Angeles — said she was especially moved by the plan.
Bittman is from Newtown, and said she attended Sandy Hook Elementary as a child. Bittman said she used to babysit Benjamin Wheeler, one of the children who died in the shooting, when he was a baby. One of the classrooms where the shooting occurred was her former classroom as a first-grader, and at the time of her attendance at the school Adam Lanza, the shooter, was also a student there.
Bittman, like Pelton, was adamant the issue be met with action and not fall by the wayside.
“I really enjoyed [the letter] because it was my president writing the letter, and that was really impactful for me because I felt like he was really taking a stand,” Bittman said.
After receiving Pelton’s initial email, which said the college was unaware of anyone who had a connection to Newtown, Bittman said she contacted Pelton. She said the two have since been exchanging emails about once every two weeks.
“I don’t know him personally, but it’s wonderful to see the support from my president,” Bittman said.
The letter itself is a call to action, citing the complexities surrounding issues involving gun violence, but imploring other college presidents to use their power to prevent further tragedies.
Pelton said he did not fear any backlash for his message, and that there needed to be some kind of recourse following the Sandy Hook shooting.
“The letters [I sent] to the community acknowledged the fact that we should not seek to politicize this event, and that our thoughts and prayers are to be with the families and survivors and others who were close to the event,” Pelton said of the initial message he sent out to the Emerson community, before drafting the initiative. “Nevertheless, I felt that this was such a significant event that it required action.”
Pelton said a number of programs will be held on Emerson’s campus, and said he hopes to keep his initiative in the forefront for the foreseeable future.
“What we will have at campus is a series of events, and overall, the events will represent different perspectives on gun violence,” Pelton said. “There are not just two sides; there are several sides of this.”
Pelton went on to address mental health issues, which he said was another focal point of his initiative.
“I for one believe that we have failed as a nation the people who suffer from mental illness.” Pelton said. “I think that failure is profound, and it’s at least three decades old, maybe older than that. I think we really as a nation, we’ve turned our back on significant populations in the country.”
Pelton is not the only college president urging his or her colleagues to effect change in the aftermath of Newtown. A separate letter, titled “College President for Gun Safety,” was published online Dec. 19 by Lawrence Schall, the president of Oglethorpe University, and Elizabeth Kiss, president of Agnes College, both Georgia schools. That letter has received signatures from over 300 college presidents, including Pelton.
In an email to the Beacon, Pelton said the letter written by Schall and Kiss was published hours before his Dec. 17. Pelton said the three college presidents decided it best not to combine their efforts.
“Our letters included different perspectives and sought different outcomes,” Pelton said.
He also said while the letter by Schall and Kiss wasn’t addressed to anyone in particular, his letter, which offered support of President Obama’s call for immediate change, was addressed to the White House. Pelton’s letter also included a section on mental health, while the other did not.
In another email Pelton shared with the Beacon, White House Domestic Policy Councilwoman Lexi Barrett confirmed that his letter was delivered to the White House.
“We want to change it for ourselves, but what we really need to focus on is the kids who are going to grow up,” Bittman said. “We should always live for our children, because it’s not our world once we move on, it’s there’s.”