Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify that Sandy Hook Promise promotes community-based prevention efforts, which include identifying warning signs of potential violence.
In the decade since a 20-year-old gunman murdered her son, Jesse, in his Newtown, Conn., classroom, Scarlett Lewis has met with several other men who’ve carried out—or plotted—similar school shootings.
She wants to understand their mindsets in the lead up to their attacks and what, if anything, could have stopped them.
“I’m very serious about safety, so why not go directly to the source?” Lewis said.
At the time of the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting—in which 20 young children and six adults died at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School—Lewis was an aide to a powerful corporate executive, searching for a rare, exotic car he wanted to buy. In the time since, she’s launched the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement, an organization that promotes social-emotional learning as a way to help children regulate their emotions. She sees such strategies as key to preventing violence.
“My son was murdered, and I realized I couldn’t go back,” Lewis said.
School safety experts have called it one of the biggest shifts in policy conversations since the Newtown shootings: a growing focus on human factors, rather than just “hardening schools” with heavy physical security measures, like metal detectors and police officers.
Organizations like Choose Love focus on offering students ways to communicate and identify their emotions so they can succeed in life. Others, like Sandy Hook Promise, which was also launched by grieving Newtown parents, focus on identifying warning signs of violence. And a growing number of schools use threat assessment, a process through which schools identify students who may pose a threat to themselves or others and intervene before they have a chance to act.
School safety has many facets
The conversation about school safety has grown more complex since 2012, but it hasn’t been any less contentious, as Lewis can attest.
Gun-control advocates frequently cite Newtown as a touchpoint in the debate about firearms laws expressing frustration at the lack of new restrictions, like universal background checks, in the time since. And subsequent school shootings have stirred up a mix of sadness and anger for people on all points of the political spectrum.
A coalition of experts in violence prevention and child well-being say there is no single solution to school shootings. They have repeatedly pushed for a combination of new gun laws, like restrictions on the sale of powerful assault-style weapons; mental health supports; crisis intervention programs; and efforts to build supportive school climates where students feel safe reporting concerns. The coalition, which includes educational organizations and academic researchers, first released its recommendations in the weeks after the Newtown shooting, and has updated its statement following major attacks at schools in Parkland, Fla., and Uvalde, Texas.
“We need a change in mindset and policy from reaction to prevention,” those recommendations say. “Prevention entails more than security measures and begins long before a gunman comes to school.”
Identifying root causes
Lewis acknowledged that some people have questioned her direct efforts to understand attackers.
She saw a flood of such pushback this year, when defense attorneys for the teen who killed 17 people in the 2018 Parkland school shooting revealed their client had met with Lewis in a web video conference from the Broward County, Fla., jail. Before the gunman was sentenced, survivors and victims’ families gave hours of confrontational impact statements, many addressing angry remarks directly to him.
“That was not popular, as you can imagine,” Lewis told Education Week of meeting with the gunman. “But I knew that someone who could do something so heinous had to be in a tremendous amount of pain.”
Her aim is not to justify shooters’ actions, to place blame, or to offer them absolution, she said. Rather, she is looking for commonalities that could be the key to preventing future pain.
Lewis has also met with Aaron Stark, a would-be attacker who said in a TED Talk that acts of kindness helped him step away from his plans, and James Quentin Stevens, who was armed with a powerful rifle when he held 10 people hostage at a Fairfax, County, Va., high school in 1982.
All of the men told Lewis they had felt disconnected, unworthy, and afraid to ask for help.
Meeting with the Parkland shooter was particularly difficult, Lewis said. He told her how he had once doubted that the Sandy Hook shooting was real, she said. Lewis was among the plaintiffs in three defamation lawsuits against fringe media figure Alex Jones, who spread such conspiracy theories.
The Parkland gunman, who was sentenced to life in prison, also talked about bringing prohibited items, like wine, to school because he craved attention, even through discipline, Lewis said.
“It was hard. It was very painful for me,” she said. “My emotions swung wildly from rage to tenderness for him.”
Such meetings have only strengthened her conviction that children need more support, Lewis said. Hundreds of schools now use free curriculum provided through the Choose Love program, which includes lessons on concepts like self awareness and mindfulness. The program was created in consultation with educators, and researchers at several universities are working with schools to evaluate its results. In 2018, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, launched a strategy to embed Choose Love in his state’s schools.
There is no profile of a school shooter
While Lewis focuses on creating supportive conditions in schools and communities, other prevention efforts focus more acutely on helping people in emotional or psychological crisis.
School shootings are statistically rare, but the impact of seeing children harmed in what is supposed to be a safe place drives them to the forefront of many policy debates.
Federal officials repeatedly say that there is no profile of a school shooter. While many attackers experience social isolation or mental health concerns, those issues are too common to be predictive, the U.S. Secret Service cautions. And student mental health advocates warn that linking conditions like depression and anxiety to violence could promote a stigma that prevents students from seeking help.
In a 2019 report, the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center analyzed 41 violent incidents in schools between 2008 and 2017. It found significant variation among attackers, but concluded that most were motivated by a specific grievance, and every single one was experiencing extreme stress.
Almost all gunmen telegraph their intentions to a friend or family member beforehand, the Secret Service concluded, a trend psychologists refer to as “leaking.”
Organizers of Sandy Hook Promise, which advocates for tougher gun laws and community-based prevention programs, say it is crucial to help students recognize those warning signs and to provide opportunities to report them so that adults can intervene.
Through threat assessment, schools assemble teams of counselors, administrators, and support staff to identify students who may harm themselves or others, providing supports like counseling and mental health treatments as part of prevention.
“The acceleration of how quickly those programs have been adopted across the country and the impact they have had has been phenomenal,” said Nicole Hockley, who co-founded Sandy Hook Promise in honor of her son, Dylan, who was 6 when he died in the Sandy Hook shooting.
About 42 percent of public schools reported a threat assessment team in 2016, according to the most recent federal data.
Sandy Hook Promise offers a “Say Something” anonymous reporting system, an app students can use to report concerns. (States like Colorado operate similar public tiplines that have grown more popular in recent years.)
The organization’s “Start With Hello” program aims to combat social isolation in schools, and its “Know the Signs” training teaches students to identify warning signs of violence. In public service advertisements, Sandy Hook Promise demonstrates those warning signs.
“I’ve learned a lot in the last 10 years,” Hockley said. “I’ve really learned to center youth in the work and what needs to be done.”
Limitations and cautions for schools
Civil rights advocates and researchers advise caution about the school prevention efforts.
Chiefly, threat-assessment work should be used to connect students to resources and tools, not in a punitive fashion that profiles, stigmatizes, or isolates them, advocates say.
A 2018 investigation by the Portland Oregonian newspaper detailed a family’s frustrating experience after their son, who has autism, was flagged as a potential threat at school. The family struggled to learn about the nature of the complaint and how to remedy educators’ concerns, the paper reported. Though it was not legally required to do so, the family voluntarily surrendered its guns during the process.
A 2019 investigation by Education Week’s Benjamin Herold detailed how schools are using extensive digital surveillance systems to track students’ online behavior, often flagging innocent social media posts made on home computers, phones, and other devices as warning signs of potential harm.
And schools sometimes struggle to recognize warning signs, or to intervene properly if they do. Education Week reported these concerns in May after it was revealed that the gunman at a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery store had previously been referred to police for threatening behavior in high school.
But organizations like Sandy Hook Promise say schools need support in promoting and refining prevention efforts.
The organization credits its programs with preventing dozens of potential acts of violence.
In June, Sandy Hook Promise praised the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the first major piece of gun legislation to pass Congress in nearly 30 years. The legislation included enhanced background checks for gun buyers under age 21; support for community violence mitigation efforts; and more than $2 billion to help schools recruit and train mental health staff, implement safety and prevention programs, and adopt student well-being strategies like social-emotional learning.
At the 10-year mark, Hockley said she wants educators to remember her son and her community by doubling down on efforts to keep schools safe.
“Recommit to whatever you are doing to prevent violence in your school,” she said.