School Climate & Safety Opinion

How Can We Honor the Victims of School Shootings? Listen to Students

On the ninth anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy, a mother speaks out
By Nicole Hockley — December 13, 2021 3 min read
After a rally in front of the White House, students march up Pennsylvania Avenue toward Capitol Hill in Washington on March 14, 2018. Students walked out of school to protest gun violence in the biggest demonstration yet of the student activism that has emerged in response to last month's massacre of 17 people at Florida's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
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At the start of this month, we experienced the most fatal school shooting since 2018, when four students were killed and eight wounded at Oxford High School in Michigan. Schools are seeing violence surpass prepandemic levels. There were more than 30 school shootings in 2021 alone, which have left dozens of children dead or injured. These figures don’t include the devastating ripple effects on entire communities that have been ripped apart, lives forever shattered, and parents left with a lifetime of agony.

Time may pass, but the wounds never heal. Next year will mark a decade since my own son, my beautiful butterfly Dylan, was gunned down in his 1st grade classroom. Since then, I’ve dedicated my life to finding ways to help keep children safe. Research shows that empowering students, listening to them and taking their concerns seriously, and teaching them the warning signs of someone who may be a danger to themselves or others are the keys to making schools safer. Starting the day before the shooting at Oxford High School, there were reports of concerning behavior by the alleged shooter. Tragically, those warning signs were not properly acted upon.

Some students say they’re more afraid of a school shooting than the pandemic, and district leaders nationwide are looking for answers. Policymakers and educators are eager to find solutions to school shootings and violence.

Some are choosing hardening measures like metal detectors, cameras, and other equipment that make schools look more like prisons than places of learning. Others are increasing active-shooter drills and simulations. As district and community leaders gather to discuss their options, however, they often leave out a crucial voice—that of young people.

Students are the eyes and ears of our schools. They are the ones who first encounter the threats of violence or suicide and see concerning behaviors, whether it’s in the classroom, on social media, or in their communities. They are also the ones who can have the biggest impact on their peers when talking about violence prevention.

Empowering students to become part of the solution can create not only real change but a cultural shift in which more inclusive and welcoming environments are the norm, rather than the exception.

Some students say they’re more afraid of a school shooting than the pandemic, and district leaders nationwide are looking for answers.

Effectively engaging students to help keep schools safe begins with listening to their experiences and ideas. We must prioritize student voices in policy discussions and decisionmaking. Any effort will be fruitless if there isn’t any co-creation or buy-in from the most important stakeholders who are most impacted by these decisions—the students themselves.

The active-shooter-simulation law signed earlier this year in Texas is a perfect example of policymaking without meaningful student involvement. Simulations are different from drills. They mimic the scene of a shooting, from the realistic sound of gunfire to injured students and full police response.

Active-shooter simulations don’t make students feel safer at school. Instead, students tell us they are traumatizing. In a recent national poll, 60 percent of teenagers reported feeling unsafe, scared, helpless, or sad as a result. Not “safe,” “protected,” or “prepared.”

In the national efforts to curb gun violence, it’s often the survivors and victims who speak out for change. It’s not by choice but by circumstance. Policymakers want to hear from those most impacted by the issue. Why would debates on school safety be any different? Students know their peers and school community best. It’s time we listen. Deeply.

We can honor my son and the 19 other children and six educators who were murdered in the Sandy Hook tragedy—and the hundreds of school shooting victims since—by committing to co-creating school safety policies with our students. Without their input and ownership, any solution is destined to fail.


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