After the Parkland shooting last month, Hanover High School junior Dakota Hanchett heard someone at The New York Times had reached out to a teacher at school, asking if they knew any students that used firearms regularly.
Of all the schools in the area, Hanover High was an odd choice for this request, Dakota knew. It’s in an Ivy League college town, one of the most liberal communities in New England.
“I’m not your typical Hanover student,” he said with a smile. “I’m that student that plays with tractors. I get my hands dirty. I have calluses on my hands. I ride snowmobiles. I shoot guns. I hunt."
Dakota went to see the teacher, who told him the Times was looking for someone to write an op-ed. He signed on.
“At first, when I told my parents that I was going to write for The New York Times, they were like, no you’re not,” he laughs.
His mom and dad were skeptical because Dakota struggles with dyslexia. It’s difficult for him to translate his thoughts to words on a page. He uses a voice-to-text program to help, but his parents knew writing a piece for national publication would be a challenge.
And Dakota is quick to acknowledge his first draft was rough. “One of my teachers who works with me quite frequently said, ‘this is going to be a long project for you,’” he said. But he worked at it, and worked at it.
He knew he wanted to point to the importance of safety and mental health — that we should be looking at people, not guns, as the problem.
The truth is, he said, a lot of his classmates don’t hunt regularly, if they ever have at all. He sees a basic knowledge of how guns work, and what it actually takes to buy and operate them, as critical to the larger conversation.
“If we can be shown pictures of penises and vaginas,” he wrote, talking about sex education in schools, “why can’t we have a couple police officers come in and show us an unloaded gun and talk about how to keep us safe?”
His dad, John, nodded along with Dakota as he spoke. “Growing up, he had a couple friends that were not allowed to come over because we had guns,” he said.
John said he's sorry people feel that way, but he knows his house is safe — the guns are locked up and put away. Still, the response from other parents sometimes left him feeling judged, that he wasn’t meeting certain people's standards.
On March 9, as Dakota was working on his op-ed, most of his classmates walked out of school in recognition of the shooting victims in Parkland. They marched a couple blocks down the road, to the post office downtown, where they mailed more than a thousand letters to politicians, urging them to support stricter gun control measures. Dakota didn’t join them. If it had just been about the Parkland victims, he said, that would have been ok. But he couldn’t join a movement that was explicitly anti-gun.
It wasn’t long after that that he hit send on the final draft of his op-ed.
“All of a sudden he goes, ‘Mom, I have paperwork that needs to be in tonight. I think this is going to be published,’” Tammy, Dakota’s mom, said. “So I went ahead, I signed the release. I read his article, and I’m like, ‘whoa, good job.’”
She felt an upwelling of joy for Dakota, in part because of how much he's struggled academically. “For him to take the time and write this article — I’m very proud,” she said. “And then for it to be published — Holy crap, this is real! You’re in The New York Times!”
She and Dakota got overwhelmingly positive feedback that day. The op-ed was featured on the Times’ homepage. People reiterated over and over that, even if they didn't agree with Dakota's opinion, they were glad he was raising his voice.
But then, the next morning, Dakota got to school early and noticed there were police officers stationed out front. He shrugged it off, went inside and met with some friends. “I sat down and started talking to one of them,” he said. But then one of his friends slid their phone across the table and said, "read that."
On the screen was an Instagram account titled ‘hanoverhighshooting.’ Its description said, in part, if I see you, you get shot.
Meanwhile, Tammy, Dakota’s mom, was just getting into work herself. “Someone said, ‘Tammy, did you hear about the Instagram? Did you hear what’s going on at Hanover High?’” she said. “It first came across that there was a shooting. … And the first thing that came to my mind is - was this due to Dakota’s article? Is Dakota OK? Is everyone OK? Is he safe?”
It turned out there was no gunman at school, no shooting. The police traced the Instagram account to an IP address in Canada. The case was covered widely, and Dakota's family wasn’t alone in wondering if there was a connection to his article.
On Wednesday, the local paper, the Valley News, reported the arrest of a 14 year-old girl allegedly behind the Instagram account. That article quoted local police saying Dakota’s piece was “on our radar” for a possible connection, and they printed Dakota’s name.
It was an unwelcome shock for the family.
“It’s very hurtful,” Tammy said. “We haven’t had time to be proud of Dakota and tell family.”
A lot of people locally saw the Valley News piece before they knew about Dakota’s op-ed, she said. So, rather than reading his words and engaging thoughtfully with his arguments, she felt they were reading it in the context of fear, of a shooting threat. “That’s what makes me mad,” she said.
The next day in school, Dakota felt like some people were watching him. The way information spread, he said, some kids thought he was personally behind the threat, not just potentially the inspiration for it being targeted at Hanover. He doesn’t know the girl in Canada, or why she chose his school, but he went as far as calling the police himself to make sure he wasn’t a suspect. He had a long talk with an officer over the phone.
The Valley News printed a clarification the next day saying that there wasn’t any indication that he was connected to the girl in Canada who was arrested.
By the end of the week, things were starting to quiet down. Dakota said he doesn't regret the op-ed. He’s proud of what he wrote. And so is his family. “Let these conversations start,” Tammy said. “Just because we’re hunters, or just because we own guns, it’s okay.”
A relative of one of the Parkland shooting victims left a short comment on Dakota’s piece on The New York Times website. Dakota was struck by that, the personal connection. His dad says once some time has gone by, he’s hoping he can help Dakota reach out to the person directly so they really talk.