Just before Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior Emma González launched into her now-iconic 11-minute gun control speech, she warned the crowd that it was going to be a long one.
“I know this looks like a lot, but these are my AP Gov notes,” González said as she raised a stack of handwritten pages in the air in front of thousands of people gathered at a vigil. It had been three days since a former student killed 17 people at her Parkland, FL, high school.
After she delivered her speech, González was so confident in front of news cameras that conspiracy theorists quickly accused her of being a crisis actor. Critics questioned how a high school senior could have such tight talking points. Rumors spread on YouTube and Twitter that the Stoneman Douglas students like her who were making repeat appearances on cable news networks were actually 30-year-old pawns of gun-control advocates. Others, like, CNN anchor Dana Bash, praised the students for their “amazing ability to have presence of mind and to be able to speak truth to power in a way that a lot of adults can’t do.”
But it turns out the Stoneman Douglas students being scrutinized are just teens with really good teachers at a school with resources. They are a testament to what public schools can produce if students have support at home and in well-funded schools.
Many of the high-profile Stoneman Douglas seniors are in the same AP United States Government and Politics program this year, helmed by Jeff Foster, who helped create the AP government curriculum for the entire Broward County Public Schools system.
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Foster is going on 20 years teaching AP government classes. He worked in finance for a few years before his mother suggested he try substitute teaching. He fell in love with it and went on to get his masters in education.
All but one of his years teaching have been at Stoneman Douglas. As far back as 2005, students have been calling him “the patron saint of every senior class.” He laughs when he says he is still getting paid like a fourth-year teacher. He does his telephone interview with Splinter from bed: He says he’s gotten just a few hours of sleep every night since the shooting.
He’s been busy. When Foster goes back to school he’s going to also start teaching geography. Like his other colleagues, Foster has volunteered to absorb a period left behind by a teacher who was killed.
But also, since the “massacre,” as he calls it, he’s been waking up in the middle of the night sweating.
“I sleep an hour, wake up and sleep another hour,” Foster says. He says he usually remembers his dreams, but hasn’t remembered any lately. He thinks it’s because he just hasn’t been able to get deep enough sleep.
AP Government student Dimitri Hoth
On the day of the shooting, Foster taught the AP Gov students about special interest groups, like the NAACP, American Medical Association, and the National Rifle Association. His lesson plan that day included a discussion about the Columbine and Sandy Hook school shootings, with emphasis on how every politician comes out afterward a tragedy to say the right thing about changing gun regulation. The students learned how the NRA goes to work as soon news reporters and the public move on to the next story.
“That’s not the NRA’s fault, that’s our fault,” Foster says. “We lose attention and that’s why interest groups run the country. If it’s not the NRA then it’s another group.”
Foster teaches AP Government all day: It’s the only subject he teaches. He had taught this particular special interest lesson four times by the time the gunman started shooting.
The following day the students were scheduled to have a test on the special interest chapter. The exam was supposed to include a free response question asking students what techniques the NRA used to be successful. The students were supposed to discuss how the NRA used mass mobilization, campaign contributions, and litigation to push their agenda forward.
Stoneman Douglas Senior Aly Sheehy
“I love [teaching government] because it’s alive, stuff is happening,” Foster says.
Emma González had already taken Foster’s lesson by the time the shooting happened. So did fellow student David Hogg, who has made multiple appearance on cable news networks, inspiring crisis actor conspiracies on YouTube in the days after the shooting.
These students are clear-eyed, media-ready, and sophisticated, often rejecting the premise of interview questions or entirely reframing them. Foster says it’s not surprising to him which kids are getting repeated interview requests and continue to speak publicly. He’s seen these same students shine in his classroom debating controversial issues like gun control, abortion, and Colin Kaepernick. Foster says he stirs the discussion to both sides. When students don’t bring up counter-arguments, he brings them up himself.
The students come from families that have resources and “for lack of a better word, power,” according to Foster. Parents have high education levels.
“It’s unfortunate not all schools are funded the way we are. We have a lot of resources at our school,” Foster says.
Only about 24 percent of the students at Stoneman Douglas are considered economically disadvantaged, according to data from the Florida Department of Education. Other high schools in the district have student bodies made of up to 89 percent of economically disadvantaged students. In the 2012-2013 academic year Stoneman Douglas graduated 94 percent of students, compared to the district’s 75.3 percent graduation rate that same time period, according to the state department data.
Stoneman Douglas opened its doors in 1991 to serve the suburban community of Parkland and parts of the city of Coral Springs. It’s the type of school that teachers from other schools want to work at. Stoneman Douglas also has a massive AP Government program, which Foster runs. About 327 students take AP government—that’s about 40 percent of the senior class. It’s a high-achieving school, especially for a public school. In the 2013 school year they had 19 AP college-level courses.
“There’s nothing I don’t enjoy [about teaching government],” says Mr. Foster. “I helped write the curriculum for the county. I’ve done everything I can.”
AP Government student Delaney Tarr
In the days after the massacre, Foster helped organize a field trip of about 100 students to Tallahassee to meet with legislators. Some students took chartered buses; others made the seven-hour trek in Foster’s minivan. When the students weren’t preparing talking points, they were singing along to the Hamilton soundtrack and Ed Sheeran. (The latter was Foster’s choice.)
Some critics and conspiracy theorists have accused Foster of pushing the Communist Manifesto. But Foster is no Communist. He’s not even a bleeding-heart Bernie bro. He’s a registered Republican who voted for Hillary Clinton.
And whereas David Hogg has stopped checking his email because of death threats, Foster still replies to some of his critics. He says he writes back with good taste and tells people they know nothing about him. He responds to hate mail by saying things like, “I’m just trying to comfort this group of kids that just went through an awful tragedy.”
But, Foster says, what he really wants to write back is: Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you.
“For anyone to be critical of the kids for something they’ve said or done is unimaginable to me. If they haven’t broken any laws then it’s the American way to protest,” he says.
Foster thinks the students are running on adrenaline. He wants to prepare his students to be emotionally ready for when and if the media attention goes away. And he hopes the students can continue to stay positive and not crash or move into depression. He wants his students to leave class and vote, run for office, or join a special interest group for an issue they care about.
“You can’t bitch,” he tells his students, “if you don’t participate.”