For one week in February, students at D’lberville High School in Mississippi roamed the hallways before and between classes, greeting fellow students with a simple hello. They encouraged other students to do the same, to write their names on badges pinned to their clothing and to try to meet a new person each day.
But what may have seemed like overly friendly gestures was something more profound — part of a broader initiative aimed at preventing the next school shooting.
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The D’lberville students are members of Students Against Violence Everywhere, one of more than 315 clubs in 40 states focused on reducing youth violence at schools and in their communities.
As lawmakers argue over how best to keep guns out of the nation’s public schools, these students are working to encourage inclusiveness and counteract bullying within their ranks.
Such efforts have gained momentum in the wake of the shooting of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and in advance of the nationwide March for Our Lives student-planned protest scheduled for March 24.
D’lberville students introduced SAVE programs a few years ago to help build a more open and accepting culture so no student feels alone or left out, faculty advisor Jennifer Ladner said. “We try to prevent bullying because it’s typically those teenagers who are considered outcasts of high schools, or the troubled ones,” said Ladner, who teaches 9th and 11th grade English at D’lberville. “That is where we see the bulk of the violence coming from.”
Last year, SAVE became affiliated with Sandy Hook Promise, a national initiative started by parents who lost children during the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.
The organization aims to prevent gun violence before it occurs by training and mobilizing adults and youth to identify at-risk behavior and to intervene.
Nearly 2.5 million students and adults in schools in all states have been trained in at least one of its four Know The Signs programs, including the Start With Hello initiative the D’lberville students were engaged in during that week in February. The other programs include Say Something, Safety Assessment and Intervention, and Signs of Suicide — all designed to help protect children from suicide, bullying, and gun violence.
SAVE club members at D’lberville, which has a total school enrollment of 1,300, began implementing many of the Sandy Hook programs last year.
Students, teachers, and staff were trained in the four Know The Signs strategies that Sandy Hook Promise provides at no cost. They were taught how to recognize when an individual is at risk of hurting himself or others and how to intervene to get them help before it’s too late.
D’lberville also opened an online bullying reporting tool, as part of SHP’s Say Something initiative, which allows anyone to anonymously report suspicious behavior.
The club received a $1,000 SHP grant that the students used to host community-wide events and to spread anti-violence and anti-bullying messages.
And in solidarity with the Parkland students and to mark National Youth Violence Prevention Week, March 19-23, D’lberville’s students will mail a signed banner to their peers at Marjory Stoneman that says, “Our Love and Thoughts are With You.”
Ladner said student membership has grown as the number of school shootings across the country has increased. And students have been energized by their peers across the nation demanding school safety and gun reform from lawmakers.
Ladner herself was motivated to get involved with SAVE because of a 1997 school shooting that occurred at a high school 20 miles away from Jackson, where she was in high school. Two years later when two students killed 13 people at Columbine High School, she was in the 12th grade.
“I remember those, and here we are 20 years later and school shootings are still happening and on an even more regular basis,” she said.
At D’lberville, she said, they’ve been lucky. “We haven’t had the threats other schools have had. [Students] want to show other schools that if you have programs such as SAVE [and SHP], you can prevent violence because you’re making students more aware.”
Meanwhile, students’ voices are being heard — in state capitals and in Congress. Florida recently passed legislation raising the minimum age to purchase a gun to 21, extending the waiting period for most gun purchases, and providing over $400 million in new funding for mental health and school safety programs.
And in Congress, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Student, Teachers, and Officers Preventing School Violence Act of 2018, which authorizes $50 million in federal grants to fund training and other initiatives to enhance school safety. Key provisions of the measure, including funding for schools to use proven school-violence prevention strategies, were developed by Sandy Hook Promise.
Mayaan Simckes, a researcher at University of Washington’s Department of Epidemiology who conducted a study that appeared in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that parents, teachers, and students can intervene to prevent bullying and gun access among youth — something the study called “modifiable risks.”
Solutions to gun violence are achievable through educational programs and through partnerships between different agencies, schools, parents, doctors’ offices, community groups, and lawmakers, she said.
But Simckes says both sides of the gun control debate are missing “everything that’s already happening,” where students and adults are taking action to stop school gun violence before it occurs.
“Sandy Hook Promise … is responding to this very serious public health threat at many levels,” Simckes said. “That multi-level, multi-pronged approach” shows that the “founders have a strong understanding of the many different factors that contribute to this public health issue.”
Eight days after the shooting at Parkland, SHP directors Mark Barden and Nicole Hockley sat down at the White House with grieving parents and students and President Trump to talk about a comprehensive response.
Holding up a photo of his 6-year old son, Daniel, who was killed at Sandy Hook, Barden told them he’d been in this position too many times, “wringing our hands, pleading with legislators.” Turning to Trump, he said, “Sandy Hook Promise has built something that works.”
For example, in 2015, a student in Cincinnati, Ohio, who was training to be a “Say Something” leader at his middle school helped avert a bomb threat and potential shooting by alerting school officials.
“We’ve already stopped school shootings. We’ve already prevented suicides,” Barden said. “We’ve already captured other social issues like bullying and cutting. We know that it works. We have a solution right here. We’re asking you to please help,” said Barden. “We need to do this nationally now.”
This article has been funded in part by a grant from the Surdna Foundation.