On December 14, 2012, 20 first grade children and six teachers lost their lives in the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Mark Barden lost his son Daniel, age seven, that day. Since then, Barden, along with several of his fellow grieving parents, put together a foundation and service program to teach about the connection between mental health and gun violence in this country. They call it the Sandy Hook Promise, or SHP.
SHP focuses on educating and mobilizing parents, schools, and communities on mental health and wellness programs that identify, intervene, and help at-risk individuals as a way to prevent gun violence before it happens.
Over the past five years, SHP has trained more than 3.5 million adults and students across the country. With the help of Barden, SHP’s co-founder, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has brought that program to her state.
“There is nothing more important than protecting the safety and well-being of our young people and communities. That’s why my office is partnering with Sandy Hook Promise to provide mental health training, suicide prevention, and violence prevention programming across 50 Massachusetts school districts,” said Healey. “By empowering our students to know the warning signs, Sandy Hook Promise is helping us save lives and prevent senseless deaths.”
Thanks to a three-year, $1 million grant, the program can be offered for free.
The grant allows for the training of educators and students in what’s called the “Know the Signs” program. The three main components—Start with Hello, Signs of Suicide, and Say Something—teach what to do before people hurt themselves or others.
In total, there have been more than 2,000 mass shootings since Sandy Hook according to the Gun Violence Archive. Healey’s office stated it has been working on the issue of gun violence for the past few years.
As they put it, their efforts “really galvanized” after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., in June, 2016. That’s when they beefed up their enforcement of the state’s assault weapons ban at the same time reaching out to organizations that advocate for gun violence prevention. Sandy Hook Promise was a perfect fit.
Framingham High School is one of the schools currently implementing SHP’s program. In mid-November, the school hosted a two-day event. The first day saw a full school assembly to discuss the program. The next day, there was a meeting of about 20 core students heavily involved in the student body who met with Healey and Barden to discuss school safety and social and emotional learning.
“The running theme was a message of kindness,” said Carolyn Banach, Framingham’s principal. “It goes a long way in preventing a feeling of being ostracized. It’s about trying to create an inclusive environment.”
Two of the students present at the meeting with Healey and Barden appreciated having the opportunity to meet with them.
“I thought it was great to have a face-to-face,” said Hailey Vanaelstyn, a senior and president of the Gender and Sexuality Alliance at Framingham. “They can hear us—not in an article, not in a survey, not second-hand. Communicating makes a real difference.”
Her fellow classmate and senior class vice president Brian Chansky agreed. “It was cool to have that kind of exposure,” he said. “They were intent on listening and not talking at us.”
Based on information from Healey’s office, middle and high school students are increasingly experiencing anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders.
Banach and Jeff Convery, vice principal, said they have definitely seen an increase in depression and anxiety in the student body. The students felt that increase was because of a combination of things—high expectations in maintaining grades and applying to college were the top two.
But they also said social media use is a big reason why kids feel depressed, isolated, and anxious. They all agreed that if they can work toward eliminating isolation on a personal level and not just on an administrative level, this program will make a difference.
“The first step to a more inclusive environment,” said Banach, “is showing friendship and making a human connection.”