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Keeping the Sandy Hook Promise

31 December 2019 Written by  By Chris Calabrese
Published in January 2020 Articles

Working Against Bullying, School Violence, and Teen Suicide

I am the Student Services Director for the Brentwood School District, charged with the challenging task of providing programs and resources to ensure that our students are able to make the best use of the educational opportunities we provide. Our goal is to direct them in developing knowledge, understanding, and skills that will prepare them for a life that is emotionally satisfying and financially stable.

Administering an effective program of public school instruction is more difficult now than it was a decade ago or even three years. Problems of violence, bullying, and teen suicide that have been plaguing the school systems for decades are becoming increasingly more serious. In 2017 hate crimes in public schools and college campuses increased by 25 percent. More than 3,000 threats were reported, which was an increase of more than 60 percent over the previous year. Reports of bullying rose five percent — a full third of students report that they’ve been bullied. The most terrible fact is that school violence rose by 113 percent.

The challenge of making public school hallways and classrooms mentally and physically safe has become the main priority for school administrations throughout the nation and certainly here in Brentwood. Preventing injury, of course, is the highest priority. However, it’s been shown that anxiety and fear prevent students from performing at high levels, so that — from a purely educational point of view — helping students to feel safe is as important as ensuring that they are safe.

“The challenge of making public school hallways and classrooms mentally and physically safe has become the main priority for school administrations throughout the nation and certainly here in Brentwood.”

Communication is a central issue in many parts of life and we realized that we could make a big stride forward in reducing fear and anxiety if students had a system that would allow them to safely report threats, dangerous situations, or any other alarming circumstance. Such a system would offer great potential for making a difference because I learned that 80 percent of school shooters had told someone before the incident. Seventy percent of people who contemplate suicide tell someone, and 37 percent of threats of violence are sent using social media tools. 

Several years ago I began searching for a system that would provide a safe way for students to inform teachers and administrators about such things as bullying, fights, threats of violence, and students who were at-risk for suicide. I conducted focus groups at the district’s eight elementary and three middle schools. On two occasions at each school, I would gather a half-dozen students together to share their ideas and emotions. I did what I could to ensure that each group would represent the school’s demographics. I especially made a point of including kids who were quiet, had been in trouble, or had a record of attendance problems. 

As I led them in discussion, I encouraged them to talk about any personal experience of bullying and violence. I explained what I was trying to do and asked them, “Would you use an anonymous reporting system if you had one?” Two thirds of them usually said they would. Half of that group were reluctant to be “tattle tales” and said they would use the system only if they or a friend were personally involved. Usually, a third of the kids said that they would never tell on anybody. One young girl justified her reluctance by saying, “Momma told me not to get into other people’s dramas.” 

I began looking at programs that had been developed, which we might be able to adapt for our purposes. Most of them involved per-student fees and had sustainability issues. Things fell into place when Lynn Mackey, the Superintendent of the Contra Costa Office of Education, and Terry Koehne, the communication manager informed me of a wonderful reporting program that had been created by a 501(c)(3) foundation, called Sandy Hook Promise that had been set up by several parents from New Town, Connecticut, who had lost children during the December 14, 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. 

The Sandy Hook Promise foundation had created an elegant online-infrastructure that is centered around a smartphone app called Say Something. The program is effective, complete, and costs nothing. Best of all, Sandy Hook reps were willing to partner with us. We created a team from our school district to implement the program including Bristow Middle School principal, John Ovick, superintendent Dr. Dana Eaton, and me.

As we learned more about it, we were impressed with the quality and thoroughness of the Sandy Hook program. For example, they have rolled it out to the entire public education system in the State of Pennsylvania. At that time, they said 20,000 events had been reported and more than 7,000 lives were changed. It would be impossible to know how many lives were actually saved, of course, but some students, and possibly many, are certainly alive today because of the Sandy Hook Promise.

We learned that the great majority of calls are made at night by troubled students who don’t want to be seen. They are ashamed to talk about the problem with their parents and don’t have any other adult that they can feel safe about going to, so they use the system as a last resort. One of our great concerns had been the possibility of an anonymous reporting system being pranked by false messages. We were reassured about that point when Sandy Hook reps told us that fewer than 0.1 percent of the calls in their system were ever false.

A Sandy Hook rep and one of the founders came out last July for a training session that was attended by all middle school administrators in the district. We learned details about how the system works and had all of our questions answered. Our decision to implement the program became a perfectly easy one to make.

We customized the Say Something app for each of the three middle schools and were ready to go five months ago, on August 19. The next day a Sandy Hook presenter spoke in an assembly at each of the middle schools. He was engaging and made the presentation fun and entertaining. The kids listened, laughed, and most of them came to realize how serious the problem is and how the program works. “Always go to a trusted adult, if you can,” he told them. 

“Otherwise, this is another option.” We sent a letter to each of the families on the day of the assembly describing how to download the app together with a brochure explaining how it worked.

It seemed that many of the students downloaded the app that day. I suspect some of them downloaded it before the assembly ended. Word of mouth is, of course, the most powerful “sales tool” with any product and before long nearly all the students at least had the app on their phones.

“We have already seen some gratifying outcomes during the few months that have passed since we began using the program.”

Messages began to come in right away. Each message goes directly to a crises center staffed by trained counselors in Florida who determine the threat level. The call is classified as Life Threatening and Non-Life Threatening, which actually means dangerous or not dangerous. For example, we classify as Life Threatening any report of bullying. Life Threatening messages are automatically routed directly to the Brentwood PD emergency response center, where dispatchers take appropriate action. All messages come to me and to the principal and vice-principals at the particular school. In any case, the school administrators and I can escalate any message labeled Non-Life Threatening and immediately forward it to the PD dispatch center. We can tell which school the call is coming from but nothing personal about the tipster. One of us will quickly make an appropriate response.

Streamlined communication is paramount, and I can see conversations with the tipster, and whatever actions the school administrators, Sandy Hook crisis center, and the PD are taking. School administrators and I remain connected 24/7. It doesn’t matter if we are in the office, in bed, or in another state, we are able to follow up immediately. In most cases, a school administrator beats me to the information and is on the case by the time I see what’s happening. Follow up is important, and I make sure that the administrator has followed up with the student and is making available whatever counseling services or other resources are required. Each case remains open until the situation is resolved.

We have already seen some gratifying outcomes during the few months that have passed since we began using the program. We received 78 tips during the first 90 days. Sixteen involved the police; seven were potentially life-saving interventions in situations where suicide was threatened. 

Following one of these cases, a mother personally delivered thank-you cards to us. She said she had been aware that her child was hurting but hadn’t known how desperate the situation had become. She was surprised and grateful at how many people were looking out for her child’s welfare and safety.

Perhaps our interventions are effective in diverting students from contemplating suicide because of the very thing that the mother commented on. Counselors, teachers, school administrators, members of the Brentwood PD, plus medical and mental health professionals offer a show of support that certainly ends the loneliness that is a factor in many suicide situations. Having a large support team pulling for their success in life doubtless encourages them to move past their troubles.

The vast majority of tips come in after dark and have to do with such things as self-harm, cutting, depression, anxiety, and threats of suicide. I was particularly gratified by life-threatening incidents that were reported by three students. Some kids, at least, are willing to use the app to help a fellow student who is in trouble.

Students are saving student lives. That’s the best thing of all to come from the Sandy Hook Promise project and our best hope for making classrooms safe places where students can most effectively acquire the information and learn the lessons that will prepare them for happy and productive adulthood. 


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