Urgent need for school violence prevention in Texas

Crosses bearing the name of of the victims killed in a shooting at Santa Fe High School are seen in Santa Fe, May 21, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

School is at the core of our children’s lives. It’s where they spend most of their time, and it should feel like a safe haven — full of friends, trusted adults and caretakers. But as I learned on an awful December 2012 morning, when my sweet little Daniel was murdered in his elementary classroom with his classmates at Sandy Hook, it can be the site of unimaginable pain, terror and sorrow.

The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary didn’t have to happen; it was the culmination of years of bad choices, negligence and overlooked signs of potential violence. I co-founded Sandy Hook Promise (SHP) to train youth and adults how to identify at-risk behaviors, assess threats, intervene and get help before someone harms themselves or others. We know this is one of the most impactful ways we can effectively prevent school violence in all its forms, as a systematic review of more than 50 studies has shown. 

I believe it is urgent that every Texas student be given access to proven violence prevention education like the no-cost Know the Signs programs from Sandy Hook Promise. When Texas parents put their children on the school bus, they want to know the kids will come home safe — but Texas is currently ranked second in the country for the number of incidents of gun violence in schools. One in eight Texas students has attempted suicide since 2017 — a much higher rate than the national average.

As my family learned after our Daniel was killed, in four out of five school shootings, the shooter told someone about their plans prior to the attack. The problem is students often don’t know how to recognize these warning signs, or what actions they should take if they do see them. That’s why we must teach them the warning signs — especially those displayed via social media — so they learn how to identify a threat and to intervene immediately by telling a trusted adult or using an anonymous reporting system before tragedy occurs.

Sandy Hook Promise trains youth to Say Something when they see warning signs: peers who face consistent social isolation, suddenly withdraw from other people and activities, act overly aggressive, display a lack of self-control and/or change behaviors abruptly. And by training our young people to notice, connect with and care about one another through programs like Start With Hello, we help students build a culture of awareness that supports a safe school environment from the beginning.

School is a place where kids learn about communication, problem-solving and empathy. We must do everything we can to empower our students — the eyes and ears of their schools — to look for the warning signs that can lead to violence. It is imperative that we teach these skills early and often throughout childhood and adolescence; it truly is a matter of saving lives. I applaud Sen. Larry Taylor and Rep. Greg Bonnen for filing legislation to improve school safety, and look forward to working with them to protect and save lives before more tragedies — like the Santa Fe High School shooting and so many others —can happen. We at Sandy Hook Promise have the tools needed and are ready to help.

Mark Barden

Managing director, Sandy Hook Promise