How to Prevent Gun Violence in Schools – with Nicole Hockley

Nicole Hockley with Sandy Hook Promise

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For our “Be The Change” segment this month, we are featuring Sandy Hook Promise. This is an organization dedicated to preventing gun violence in our nation’s schools. I’ve invited the Co-founder and Managing Director, Nicole Hockley to tell us more about the organization. We’re also going to discuss what we can do as parents, neighbors, and community leaders to prevent gun violence where we live.

Andy Hill: Why is the topic of gun violence prevention so important to you?

Nicole Hockley: The topic of gun violence prevention is very personal to me. Almost 7 years ago on December 14th, 2012 I sent two of my sons off to school and only one came home. My youngest son Dylan was shot and killed in his first-grade classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

I am on a personal mission to ensure that no parent ever has to experience the loss of their child in this way, but also to teach others about how preventable gun violence is and how to take those steps to ensure that we can one day be in a nation where no student ever experiences the devastating effects of a school shooting.

What is Sandy Hook Promise doing to prevent gun violence?

We have a very specific set of programs that are evidence-based and proven to reduce gun violence by saving people and impacting lives in that way. There’s a lot of different ways that people attack the issue of gun violence prevention, and most of it is done through policy or a legislative perspective in terms of passing sensible gun safety laws. We’re all for that and very supportive.

However, what we felt was missing and what’s so needed are community-based solutions that pair with those policies. How we can teach kids, especially in middle school and in high school, to recognize at-risk signs of violence or self-harm in their peers and to themselves, and then take action to intervene. So we’re more about upstream violence prevention. Within that broad spectrum of violence, we are also helping to avert self-harm, suicide by firearm, homicide by firearm and mass shootings.

team community building

What are some of the school programs that are providing that information?

Know the Signs

We have an umbrella program called Know The Signs. Within that, we have programs such as Start With Hello, where we teach kids how to recognize the signs of someone who is chronically socially isolated, and to understand how that feels. We’re teaching kids how it can feel to be pushed out or withdrawn and how to create connections.

We know that social isolation is really one of those upstream factors. If you intervene on it and make connections earlier on, people aren’t left to their own devices and aren’t feeling like they need to retaliate against something or feel bullied. So connections are really important.

Say Something

Another program that we promote very heavily is Say Something. That’s where we teach teens and the adults around them how to recognize the signs of at-risk behaviors. So someone who is showing that they are thinking about harming themselves, or hurting someone else, as well as recognizing an overt threat that’s being made, and then taking action.

Particularly on social media, because that’s where a lot of these threats and these behavioral issues are surfacing. We teach kids to take it really seriously when you see signs on social media or hear about it on the bus or in the classroom.

They then learn to take action by telling a trusted adult or using an anonymous reporting system. We also explain why it’s so important to not just think ‘I’m snitching, I’m going to get someone in trouble’. No, you’re going to get someone help.

Those are the two key programs that we teach kids around the country.

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What are some of the signs of gun violence that we should be looking for?

There’s a lot of signs to look for. Sometimes a threat can be incredibly overt. Like if someone says, “Don’t come to school tomorrow. I’m bringing a gun and I’m going to shoot up the school.” That’s something to take immediate action on by calling 911, local law enforcement or telling someone, an adult who can then do that for you.

But there’s a ton of other signs in terms of this spectrum of violence and self-harm. For those that I don’t cover, you can always go to our website at Sandy Hook Promise and download the brochure, which has a list of signs in them.

This could be someone who is chronically depressed, or thinking about suicide, or giving away possessions, or obsessed with previous shootings, or obsessed with firearms and collecting firearms, or finding ways to access firearms. It’s also about people who have trouble managing their emotions.

A lot of gun violence and self-harm stems from an inability to properly manage anger and resolve conflicts. These are simple skills that so many people have, but other kids struggle with it sometimes. When they can’t figure out why they’re angry at that person and how to fix the problem, they turn to violence or self-harm. Those are the sort of signs that we teach people to look for.

Who is …

  • Withdrawing?
  • Pushing others away?
  • Being overly aggressive to something that seems very minor to someone else?

This includes massive behavioral changes, or dress changes, or interest changes, or someone who could be a really good student is suddenly failing out. These show major shifts in a person that demonstrates that something’s going on in their lives and they need help. That’s the kind of thing that we teach in schools.

Where do you go first when you notice these signs?

It really depends on the student and who they’re comfortable talking to. In the case of an emergency, we always train everyone, call 911. That’s got to be your first call if it’s an emergency.

If it’s something like noticing that someone has been cutting, or maybe they’ve been abusing substances, or they’re getting attacked by their boyfriend or girlfriend and they’re suffering from dating violence, then the first thing, if it’s not an emergency, is to find a trusted adult. We’re not asking students to diagnose other students. Take it to an adult who then has more expertise in getting that help.

boy against wall isolation

A trusted adult can be anyone. It can be someone in the school, it could be your parents, it could be your coach, it could be your faith leader or your youth club leader. It just has to be someone who is adult enough to know, all right, I’ve now been given this information, I’m going to take this to the school administration, for example. Or to law enforcement, if needed, if it seems like a significant risk. Then they can take the actions that are needed.

And when we have an anonymous reporting system paired with it, then that takes the responsibility away from students and parents altogether, because they can just call the line, use the app or go to the website and report a tip of.

They describe what they’ve been seeing or hearing, show images and upload anything that they’re seeing from social media. They know that each tip is going to be triage and then dealt with appropriately by a school team or by local law enforcement, depending on whether someone’s life is an imminent danger or not.

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How does your organization support the school?

The training is available on multiple levels. In some states, we have Promise Presenters, trainers who will actually physically go into the school and deliver this in an assembly period or in a classroom environment.

We also have the ability to train other trainers within a school community or district or even a state. Then we also have digital self-lead. If you’re an educator, and you want to take this to your classroom, you can actually go to our website, download the ‘Say Something‘ program, download the educator guide, and all the activities and objectives of learning and activities to do, and do it yourself. Then report back to us on how this was experienced by your classroom as well as what you’re seeing so that we can continue to refine the programs.

Later this fall, we’re also launching video training. For some teachers, it’s just going to be an easier solution to plug and play. Take the video training of our trainers presenting to your classroom, and just plug it in and show it during the classroom or send it home as a homework assignment if needed.

These are different ways. We really want to make sure that we’re reaching kids in schools in whatever way they need. So we really prefer to train districts altogether. You have more power from school to school if you’re all talking with the same voice and taking the same actions, versus one school having one hotline number and in another school having another program.

school classroom girl drawing

The power with youth comes when you’re all working with the one voice and one shared action in one training. So we really prefer training at the district level. Then we sustain everything through clubs. We’ve really learned from the schools that you need to let the students own it. You need to let them lead it and empower them through the use of clubs, which we help to sustain the programs.

Each month, there’s another message around. They practice an active shooter drill and then reinforce this with a ‘Say Something’ exercise. Because as students, they would much rather be preventing violence from happening rather than practicing for when it does.

It’s perfect for any parent who wants to bring this to their school, or their youth organization, or their community center. Self-lead and download the material or contact us and we’d love to bring it to your district and train the students directly.

Is there a cost associated with your training?

There is no cost with the training. We don’t charge schools for our services at all. At a district or state level, there are also federal grants available for training as well in violence prevention programs and anonymous reporting systems such as ours. But if a district signs up with us, we’re not going to charge anything for our services.

How can someone help and support the organization?

Well, donations are absolutely needed so that we can do the work. We don’t charge schools for our costs, but obviously, there are costs to delivering the program, and we are 100% donor-funded. The money is used for the program.

So roughly, depending on the program, it costs on average $1 for us to train a child. So if you think about how big your district is, and how many kids are there, you can get a rough estimate of how much money is needed for us to go in each year and train those kids.

75 cents of every dollar that’s donated to us goes straight into those programs. We’re not here to make money, we are here to have an impact and to save lives, period. We keep our overheads incredibly low so that the money from our donors is used in the way it’s intended, which is to impact lives.

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How would you describe success for Sandy Hook Promise?

My job is to put us out of business by training every single school in the country and ending this epidemic of gun violence and school shootings.

When I look back at what we’ve achieved in the last few years:

  • We’re already in about 14,000 schools
  • Have trained about 7,500,000 kids so far
  • Have generated almost 30,000 life-saving tips into our anonymous reporting system
  • Intervened on a lot of school shooting plans and suicide threats and other forms of violence.

If I look five years out, we should be at more than 20 million kids trained by that time. Some of those 20 million are going to be kids that will have been trained more than once, and are really getting the impact going forward.

We’ll be in a lot more schools across the country, especially where there is violent crime and death by firearm. We’ll be building up these next five years of kids. Because some of the kids that we’ve been training are now going into high school and graduating out.

So within the next 5 years, a lot of those kids will now be in college or beyond and will be training the next generation as well. It’s just going to be more lives saved, more impact, and more education on how to recognize the signs and help someone before they ever reach the point of picking up a weapon to hurt themselves.



How do you feel about gun violence in our nation?

Please let us know in the comments.


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How to Prevent Gun Violence in Schools

Author: Andy Hill

Andy Hill is the host of the Marriage, Kids and Money Podcast which focuses on helping young families build wealth. This 5-star rated podcast was nominated as "Best New Personal Finance Podcast" by Plutus. Andy's advice and personal finance experience have been featured in major media outlets like Business Insider, MarketWatch and NBC News.

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