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Can schools prevent mass shootings? Sandy Hook parents train teachers to help at-risk students

Five years after a shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, many parents who lost children have taken their efforts to reduce gun violence into the classroom. Their group, Sandy Hook Promise, offers free training to schools and youth programs to educate students about recognizing early signs of violence. Special correspondent Lisa Stark of Education Week reports from Miami.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This week marks a somber anniversary, the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.

    In the five years since, many of the parents who lost their children that day have been pushing to reduce gun violence.

    One group, Sandy Hook Promise, has taken that effort right into the schools.

    Special correspondent Lisa Stark of our partner Education Week traveled to Miami to visit the first school district to implement the program.

    It’s part of our weekly segment, Making the Grade.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Miami’s John Ferguson High School spills over with more than 4,000 students, the largest school in the district.

  • Danielle Jattin:

    There’s a lot of isolation around.

  • Julian Zarate:

    Especially in a school this big.

  • Carolina Blanco:

    Because it’s very hard for some students to fit in.

  • Lisa Stark:

    These students are working to change that.

  • Shantalle Martinez:

    And we just want to make sure that everybody knows that they’re not alone.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Their motivation? A tragedy that happened five years ago and nearly 1,400 miles away, the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, 20 children, 6- and 7-year-olds, and six educators gunned down by a troubled 20-year-old.

  • Nicole Hockley:

    No one should ever lose a child in these sorts of circumstances, especially when it’s preventable.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Nicole Hockley’s 6-year-old son, Dylan, died in his first grade classroom, her grief magnified by what she found out afterwards.

  • Nicole Hockley:

    I had always assumed that our shooter had snapped.

    And it was a moment of clarity, and furious clarity, for me to find out that he had exhibited signs and signals throughout his life, and that this was a very typical mass shooting.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Hockley’s mission now-

  • Nicole Hockley:

     We want to prevent other tragedies from happening by teaching people to know the signs of violence.

  • Lisa Stark:

    She and other Newtown parents started Sandy Hook Promise and enlist students in their fight. Their free training has been used in 4,000 schools and youth organizations. It includes Start With Hello, an activity which encourages students to interact, and a program called Say Something, teaching students to tell an adult if they see signs someone may be a threat to themselves or others.

  • Nicole Hockley:

    This isn’t about snitching or being a tattletale. This isn’t about getting someone in trouble. This is about getting them help.

  • Lisa Stark:

    The nation’s fourth largest school district, Miami-Dade, has signed on. Sandy Hook Promise trainers have visited more than 100 schools here.

  • Julian Zarate:

    A lot of atrocities in schools, school shootings and such, stem from students who were either bullied or isolated. And so by dealing with this problem, we’re hoping that we can minimize anything coming up in the future.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Dewey Cornell, who has analyzed school violence for decades, says that is precisely the point.

  • Dewey Cornell:

    You don’t prevent a forest fire by waiting until all the trees are all ablaze. You pay attention to all the campfires and make sure all the campfires are taken care of.

    And we have incidents of bullying all the time in our schools. And the more that we can do to deal with these minor conflicts before they escalate into more serious ones, the better off we will be.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Reducing violence in schools isn’t just about reaching students. Experts who have studied the issue say it’s also important that teachers and administrators react sensibly to any safety concerns.

  • MAN:

    Is a student posing a threat, all right? Is a student on a path toward an attack?

  • Lisa Stark:

    A team from every school in Miami-Dade is learning how to identify, evaluate and handle possible threats. They’re taught to take threats seriously, but not to overreact.

  • Dewey Cornell:

    We had a child who chewed his pop tart into the shape of a gun, and was suspended from school. After the Sandy Hook shooting, a first grader in Maryland went pow-pow with finger, and was suspended from school.

    These are fearful overreactions that send a really negative message throughout the school.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Cornell, who developed this threat assessment training after the Columbine School shooting in 1999, believes districts that use zero-tolerance policies make their schools less safe, students less likely to report concerns.

  • MAN:

    If the threat is vague or somebody is clearly angry, you want to err on the side of caution.

  • Lisa Stark:

    This training includes exercises. What should a school do if a student threatens to beat up another, and what if a teen has a hit list?

    The goal, not to automatically expel the student, but to address the underlying problem.

  • Virginia Valdes:

    What I’m taking away today is that not everything can be solved with a suspension. It takes really bringing those students together, letting the victim feel heard, letting the one who did the bullying understand what he did or she did. It’s really changing our mind-set.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Advocates say this can be more effective than turning schools into fortresses, because most school shootings are carried out not by an outsider, but by a student.

  • Dewey Cornell:

    We have done a series of controlled studies over the past 15 years showing that, when schools use our model, their suspension rates go down, their bullying goes down, and the threats aren’t carried out.

  • Lisa Stark:

    The Sandy Hook training isn’t one and done. Schools pledge to keep awareness high.

    At Ferguson, the Psychology Honor Society sponsors numerous events. You have heard of speed-dating? The students here have a new version- speed-friending.

  • Danielle Jattin:

    We got people from different grades and we put them all in the gymnasium, and each of them had two-minute conversations. And then you can see that people were, like, laughing, people who had never met each other. People were having full on conversations.

  • Lisa Stark:

    An effort they believe has paid off.

  • Carolina Blanco:

    In one of the speed-friendings, there was a student that was having a problem, and he opened up to it. So, we brought the attention to one of his teachers, and that really helped him to cope with his problems and talk about them more.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Other activities include encouraging students to join someone eating alone, and to pass positive notes to friends and strangers.

    Ferguson High School psychology teacher Michelle Vigoa-Suarez heads up the ongoing activities, inspired by Sandy Hook Promise.

  • Michelle Vigoa-Suarez:

    Before they came, I didn’t really value what I could do. It was kind of like, I thought of it as, well, it’s a society problem, and let’s just pray.

    But when Sandy Hook came, they gave us the power to say, wait a minute, we can stop this. Why are we going to sit back and say, well, we will react when it happens?

  • Lisa Stark:

    It’s hard to measure how much of a difference all this really makes. Sharon Krantz oversees the effort in the Miami-Dade schools.

  • Sharon Krantz:

    You know, this is prevention, so you don’t really know what you prevented. But I know that we are making it OK to speak up, we are making it OK to include people.

  • Nicole Hockley:

    There have been times that we have reached out to different communities and families.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Nicole Hockley points to anecdotal reports indicating their Say Something training has stopped suicides and possible shootings.

    In California, students reported a classmate’s threatening online post. In Ohio, students overheard shooting threats, and alerted school officials.

    And how does that make you feel?

  • Nicole Hockley:

    Sometimes, it takes me out at the knees, if I’m honest with you, because it’s incredibly elating to know that we have just been able to help someone else. But it’s never going to be enough.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Hockley says it only encourages her to take her message to more schools, to redouble her efforts.

    For Education Week and the PBS NewsHour, I’m Lisa Stark in Miami, Florida.

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