Galvanizing Students to Prevent A Shooting

Nicole HockleyThree students injured by gunfire in a shooting in the parking lot of Hinkley High School in Aurora, Colorado; four students wounded in a shooting sparked by a fight inside a classroom at Timberview High School in Arlington, Texas; and a 15-year-old student at Ware Shoals High School in Greenwood, South Carolina, commits suicide by handgun on school property.

These incidents represent just a small sample of the shootings that have taken place on or near school properties this year and a fraction of the school-based shootings that have occurred since a gunman took the lives of 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 14, 2012.

Nicole Hockley, whose son, Dylan, was killed in the Sandy Hook shooting, joined with several other parents who lost children to form Sandy Hook Promise. The organization’s goal is to end school shootings, and Nicole discusses its signature initiative, “Know the Signs.”

How did “Know the Signs” get started?

After the devastation of Universal Background Checks legislation failing to pass in Congress in 2013, I and my other co-founders turned our attention to researching every mass and school shooting to figure out how we could prevent these from happening to other families.

We found that in almost every case, the shooter displayed clear warning signs ahead of the attack. No one was teaching what these warning signs were nor how to intervene, so we developed the Know The Signs programs with experts in the fields of education, psychology, threat assessment and school safety. Since then, nearly 15 million students and adults have participated in Start With Hello and Say Something, the cornerstone Know the Signs programs.

What barriers have historically prevented students from speaking up?

In developing our programs, we did dozens of interviews with students to ask them what would help them speak up when seeing warning signs of potential violence. The most common barrier they shared with us was “fear of retribution,” and that having a safe, anonymous way to speak up would help the most. That’s why we launched our Say Something Anonymous Reporting System in 2018. First we teach what the warning signs are and then we offer an easy, safe way to tell a trusted adult via telephone hotline, downloadable app or website. 

Has the unending incidents of school shootings spurred more students and adults to get involved?

Yes. We see an increase in interest in our programs on our website, via email, and in our social channels that coincides with shooting tragedies and news coverage. The good news is, we know our programs work and have already delivered 269 saves where a life was in danger, including suicide; 64 acts of school violence where a weapon was present, including credible school shooting plans; and several thousand much-needed mental health interventions. The more evidence we share of the tragedies we have helped prevent, the more schools and districts want to implement our life-saving programs where they are. 

You partner with educators, students, parents and volunteers. What role can each of those stakeholders play in ending school shootings?

We all have a role to play in ending school shootings and violence. It comes down to understanding what the warning signs are, taking them seriously and telling a trusted adult to get help. Students are the eyes and ears of their school community; it’s critical that they know how to recognize when someone may be in crisis and speak up, and understand the fundamental importance of looking out for one another.

Adults can help grow awareness that gun and school violence is preventable (not inevitable), provide education on the warning signs, help students feel connected and also reinforce that young people can trust them to take their concerns seriously. We’ve developed programs and workshops to support these roles — all available on-demand online at no cost.

What will it take to end school shootings?

We believe in a holistic, public health approach to ending school shootings, combining (1) education on when and how to “say something” when seeing warning signs of potential violence or self-harm, with (2) evidence-based research and (3) sensible state and federal policies that support youth mental health and safe gun ownership. 

What is your reaction when you hear about another school shooting? 

First, my heart breaks for the victims’ families and the community; I know all too well what that pain is like and how it never actually heals. Then I get angry. No child should have to endure the devastation of a school shooting. And then I get to work, doing everything I can to raise awareness of the warning signs, get funding to bring our programs into more schools, and encourage lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to support necessary legislation to protect our kids.

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