Opinion

Teaching Students to Know the Signs Is Key to Preventing Gun Violence

Sandy Hook: Woman and little boy hold protest signs about gun violence.

Heather Mount/Unsplash

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It’s been seven years since my son Daniel was murdered, along with 19 of his classmates and six educators, at Sandy Hook Elementary School. In the days that followed, I made a promise to my little boy that I would honor him, and the other innocent lives cut short on Dec., 14, 2012, by devoting my own life to preventing gun violence. 

The task may seem daunting given the troubling increase of violence we’ve seen in our schools. Gun violence has increased at an alarming rate in the past two years and  is now the second leading cause of death in the United States for those under 19. 

Mark Barden

It seems like every month another school shooting is making headlines somewhere in the country and more fathers and mothers are having to say goodbye to their children for the last time. Despite the troubling trends of violence, it’s the life-saving interventions that give me hope for the future. And they are happening every single day.

In my work with Sandy Hook Promise, I’m seeing students around the country becoming increasingly engaged in keeping their schools safe, learning the warning signs of someone at risk of hurting themselves or others, and when and how to “say something” when seeing troubling behavior. The signs can be as obvious as an outright threat on social media or as subtle as students who suddenly pull away from their peers, become obsessed with firearms or exhibit significant behavioral changes. 

By training students to “know the signs” of potential violence and giving them ways to safely and anonymously report what they see, students become empowered to keep their schools safe. This approach is critically important, given more than 80% of school shooters told someone about their plans ahead of time. 

Early intervention is the key to saving lives, and you don’t have to just take my word for it. Experts with the U.S. Secret Service came to the same conclusion in a report released in November, after conducting the most exhaustive research on school shootings ever. They concluded that school violence is preventable by teaching students the signs, empowering them to tell someone and providing an anonymous reporting system to make it safe and easy to speak up. 

This system is working

In the past year alone, more than 5,000 schools have partnered with Sandy Hook Promise, the gun violence prevention and school safety organization I co-founded after Daniel was killed, to train youth and adults to “know the signs” of potential violence and to “say something” to a trusted adult or through the Say Something Anonymous Reporting System.

The Say Something system allows students and educators to anonymously report potential threats, acts of violence and self-harm through an app, website or call center that interfaces with school officials and law enforcement. We have trained millions of people on how to spot at-risk behaviors and to intervene through this system. 

And it’s working.

A potential school shooting was averted recently when the Say Something system began receiving tips from an urban school district in Texas that a student was posting threatening messages on social media.  One of the threats said, “‘Glock 9 in my bag – ready to roll – good luck finding me tomorrow.” Law enforcement were immediately notified, determined the threat was credible and were able to intervene before a tragedy could occur.  We will never know how many lives were saved that day.

Another student called the Say Something system after her suicidal friend swallowed a bottle full of pills in the school bathroom. The student notified a trusted adult and the girl was rushed to the hospital, survived the ordeal and was able to get the help she needed.

Of the more than 40,000 tips we have received through the Say Something system, five came from brave middle schoolers reporting a threat on their school made by a fellow student via SnapChat. Thanks to these tips, our counselors gathered the information needed for law enforcement to intervene. They investigated and found an accessible, loaded weapon in the student’s home — along with plans for an attack. 

This is just another example of a school community on the brink of catastrophe, saved by anonymous students who knew what to look for and how to report it to adults who could help.

Already more than 500 schools have adopted the Say Something system. We’ve also partnered with Pennsylvania and North Carolina to make the system available in every middle and high school in those states. As a result, millions more students are getting the support and the tools they need. Most importantly, lives are being saved every day.

It’s these interventions that are the Sandy Hook Promise in action. 

These stories of interventions strengthen my promise to my sweet little Daniel, driving me to do everything I can to ensure no one else has to endure the preventable loss of a child or loved one due to gun violence. Join me and make the Sandy Hook Promise to turn tragedy into transformation today.

Mark Barden is co-founder and managing director of Sandy Hook Promise and father of Daniel, who was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy.

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