Violet Massie-Vereker
February 22, 2018 10:24 AM

Editor’s note: Following last week’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people, students across the country raised their voices calling on politicians to take measures to stop gun violence.

Violet Massie-Vereker, a high school student from Pelham, New York, created the #MeNext hashtag by posing for a picture outside Pelham Memorial High School holding a sign with the hashtag. The hashtag has since gone viral and a Facebook page has been created with its haunting message: If lawmakers don’t step up, more children will be killed.

In an essay written exclusively for PEOPLE, Massie-Vereker discusses the origin of her hashtag and the urgency of her cause.

It started when I saw the flag outside our school standing at half-mast on Wednesday evening. It’s a familiar sight, so I only spent a second wondering what new horror had struck our nation before the thought left my mind. It wasn’t until the next afternoon when I learned of the shooting, when I read the articles, saw the videos, when I cried into my friend’s shoulder and resolved that this was it, this was enough.

I heard that a number of citizen activists in my town of Pelham, New York, had organized a protest in front of our high school on Friday morning to demand immediate gun control legislation. A parent reached out and asked me to rally a number of students to join the protest and participate in a walkout, which came to fruition with great success and full support from the school. What followed was entirely unpremeditated and extraordinary.

Violet Massie-Vereker
Deborah Lowery/Polaris

In preparation for the protest the night before, an idea popped into my head as I watched my mother composing a sign denouncing “thoughts and prayers” and advocating for gun control laws. I asked her if she thought #MeNext? would work as a sign for students at the walkout, inspired by the #metoo movement. I thought it was succinct and strong, bringing the issue home and demanding recognition: Any American student could be the next victim of gun violence, and nothing makes us immune.

The next day, a number of people expressed how gutting and powerful the hashtag was. After the protest, my mother posted the picture of me holding the sign, and encouraged people to spread the message. Within five hours, the post had 8,000 shares, and had received international attention. We launched social media pages to facilitate the growth of the movement, and ever since we’ve been managing the massive influx of responses as this simple idea explodes.

#MeNext? is a small drop in the bucket of a much larger conversation and movement to end the obscene culture of gun violence in America. This truly feels like the beginning of the end of the gun debate in America, and I believe it’s the result of two factors. First, in the past two years, there’s been a sharp increase in political engagement and activism in response to the Trump administration’s actions. Second, this is the first national student-led movement in my lifetime.

I believe #MeNext? has struck a chord for both parents and students: Everyday, we’ve had students send in photos of themselves with the hashtag.

So what’s next for #MeNext? The plan is to spread the message as far as possible to amplify the efforts of the courageous Parkland students and their #NeverAgain movement. We refuse to let this fade like every other mass school shooting since Columbine. Too many children have been slaughtered as Washington sits silent. With enough student pressure, we can mobilize this nation to campaign and vote for candidates who refuse to accept money from the NRA and who, once elected, will ban semi-automatic weapons and require stringent background checks on all those purchasing guns.

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