Know the signs: Sandy Hook leaders issue warnings as K-12 schools reopen

Mental health, violence are top concerns as students return.
By: | August 9, 2021

As school districts across the United States adjust and finalize plans heading into the 2021-22 academic year—and with COVID-19 still dominating conversations—two other topics that should be front of mind for administrators are mental health support and violence prevention.

The nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise is concerned that, as schools reopen after a largely remote year, students may struggle to get reacclimated to their classrooms, their instruction and their peers. They worry there could be an uptick in stress, suicide, self-harm and gun incidents.

“We’re really concerned about this back-to-school season and want to ensure that schools, adults and kids are ready for what we feel is a potential powder keg that could explode unless we take preventative measures and put supports in place right now,” says Nicole Hockley, co-founder and managing director of Sandy Hook Promise, whose son Dylan was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in 2012. “We are forecasting that there will be more violence in schools. So we really want to help schools prepare for that by prioritizing prevention, prioritizing kids reconnecting, not just assuming that when they go back to school day one, that kids are so resilient, they’re just going to bounce back. That’s an unrealistic expectation.”

To that end, Hockley says, awareness, support and understanding are critical. Sandy Hook Promise offers a number of programs, such as Say Something and the SAVE Promise Club to help schools and students. “We need to provide opportunities for them to connect, to relearn social cues and body language and relearn how to express themselves to their trusted adults to ensure that they’re getting the help that they need.”

Hockley says that even during the pandemic, Sandy Hook’s Crisis Center has seen a 7% spike in life-safety tips, or calls to express that a life is in danger, with the majority around suicide.

“That was not our No. 1 tip being reported pre-COVID,” she says. “We know the pandemic has put a lot of pressure on everyone—financial uncertainty, isolation, fear of health, and mental health concerns. [Students are] concerned about in their peers—we’ve heard reports of kids saying, ‘My friend told me that they’re going to commit suicide; they’re going to kill themselves after school today.’ There has also been an increased number of reports of kids saying, since COVID, ‘My parents have been under a lot of stress. I feel like a financial burden to them. I don’t want to be in this position anymore.’ ”

Knowing the signs before incidents happen

Sandy Hook Promise was started to “end school shootings and create a culture change that prevents violence and other harmful acts that hurt children.” But it has developed into so much more, addressing mental health through its Know the Signs prevention program which has reached more than 12 million students and 14,000 schools. That initiative, accessible to grades 6-12, is being expanded to fourth and fifth grades.

One of its missions is to give students and adults the skills to understand and step in for those who are experiencing trauma or isolation and prevent harm from occurring. Their programs are all free, benefiting both students and educators who can learn those signs before they happen.

“What does it look like if a student is ideating on self-harm? What does it look like if a student is having what might be perceived as an inappropriate response or having difficulty managing their anger or their anxiety or their depression? How do we intervene to get them help? If we don’t take preventative measures, it could mean a significant number of tragedies from an individual and a community perspective,” Hockley says.

She referenced alarming statistics over the past year—there have been over 400 mass shootings. Last year there were 419. School shootings were notably down last year because of the pandemic, including the first March in 18 years where there wasn’t a mass shooting on a K-12 campus. But when schools have been in session, the numbers have been on the rise. Since 1970, there have been more than 1,300 school shootings with 18% coming since Sandy Hook, where 26 lost their lives, including 20 young children.

“It was more than ironic and sad that it took a global pandemic in order to reduce school shootings to nothing,” Hockley says. “We had an increased number of gun sales last year. When you think about access to means for someone to implement their plan of self-harm or harm to others, there’s a lot more opportunity for tragedy. We really want to help get ahead of it by bringing this issue to the forefront of people’s minds. It’s not just about getting back to school and making sure desks are socially distant or mask protocols are in place. It’s about ensuring that we have the mental health supports in place now for our kids before they return to school. How can we help them reconnect? How can we help them readjust? How can we help set them up for success for the school year? Because this is going to be a return like we’ve not experienced before. I’m usually an optimist. And I do not have a good feeling about this.”

How can schools help?

Dr. Rachel Masi, research director for Sandy Hook Promise, licensed clinical psychologist and board member for the National Center for School Safety, should consider a holistic approach to helping students interact and succeed.

“I think a big piece is how schools can incorporate that social-emotional learning piece, along with the physical safety that they’re going to have to think about when it comes to COVID,” Masi says. “With all schools facing so many constant changes, policies and decisions, looking at it as a holistic approach is going to be incredibly significant.”

Bob Flynn, Sandy Hook Promise’s national programs director, agrees, saying, “Students lost a lot of that social-emotional development by being isolated. I think there also may be a tendency to focus even more on academics because academics have been lost as a result of the last year in remote learning.”

Flynn says ensuring students feel comfortable in reaching out for help, building peer support mechanisms and boosting teacher and administrator awareness are important.

“Knowing the specific warning signs of a classmate that might be showing that they’re going to hurt themselves or hurt others, then having that conversation with a trusted adult when they see those warning signs,” he says “Schools should make it a focus to build inclusive and connected communities so that students really do feel like they belong in a positive and supportive group. Because you can certainly go to school and be around all of your classmates and not necessarily feel connected.”

With supports in place, and help from organizations like Sandy Hook Promise that offer training and resources, there is hope.

“We know school shootings are preventable. We know suicides are preventable. When someone needs help, it’s about recognizing the warning signs,” Hockley says. “It’s about knowing what to do when you see it, not assume someone else is going to take care of it. If you see a child in crisis, as a teacher, don’t deny it. A lot of anxiety, bullying, depression is online. Let’s give them the tools and empower them to take control back to help themselves help each other. Don’t go into this blindly and say, we’re back to school, everything’s fine. Say, we’ve got some problems, let’s figure out how we’re going to solve them.”