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Three Years After Newtown, Schools Broaden Their Definition of Safety

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It's been three years since a gunman forced his way into a Newtown, Conn., elementary school and killed 20 young children and six staff members before turning the gun on himself and taking his own life as police responded to the scene.

The shootings were a catalyst for discussions that continue today about schools' responsibility to keep students safe. For many educators, those discussions have led to a broader understanding of what safety means for students—both physically and emotionally.

Though there have been other school shootings since Newtown, the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School remain a painful touch point in conversations about school safety. And those conversations have long held to a pattern of referencing the largest recent instance of senseless violence as an example of what everyone hopes to prevent. 

Since the Dec. 14, 2012 shootings—known to Newtown residents as simply "12/14"—many educators, lawmakers, and parents have focused policy proposals, prayers, and school-level efforts on ensuring that nothing unseats the Sandy Hook shootings as the deadliest K-12 shooting in U.S. history. 

But many of the people most closely affected by the shootings, including victims' families, have expressed frustration that Congress has failed to pass laws they say would reduce the chances of gun violence.

"I don't think there's any panacea to this epidemic of gun violence," U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, recently told Vox. "While we've seen a rise in mass shootings, the U.S. has had a high level of gun homicides for a very long time. So there should be a combination of changing our gun laws, increasing our enforcement, [and] economic empowerment."

"So the problem isn't simple, and the policy solutions aren't either. What's offensive to me is that some people are using the complicated nature of the solutions as an excuse to do nothing."

Despite a massive White House push after Sandy Hook, the debate over gun laws quickly settled into a familiar exchange of talking points. But, even after the dust has settled on larger stalled legislative efforts, discussions about school safety have advanced in new directions, and many educational leaders and school climate experts have pushed for a broader understanding of what that means.

Efforts to arm teachers and install metal detectors often draw the most attention, but the much more nuanced work to ensure students feel safe, supported, and connected to trusted adults is equally important to prevent the worst case scenario, experts say. That's because people who plan to act in a violent manner often express their intentions to others in advance, and students are more likely to share their concerns about their peers if they trust that adults will take them seriously. And threat assessment experts say early interventions can often stop students from tumbling down a path toward violence.

So, while many families of Newtown victims have been involved in campaigns to change gun laws, the tragedy has also been a launching point for a long list of organizations committed to the social and emotional well-being and mental health of children in schools.

Those efforts were buoyed in November 2014 when the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate, which is tasked with reviewing child deaths in the state, released an extensive report detailing how gunman Adam Lanza's emotional and mental health needs went unmet throughout his childhood.

Lanza received minimal mental health observations at school, the report said. His parents "may not have understood the depth or implications of his disabilities," which, at various stages in his life, included obsessive-compulsive tendencies, anxiety, anorexia, a fascination with violence, and autism spectrum disorder, it concluded.

The report's authors detailed a long list of recommendations, including greater flexibility for schools to coordinate and fund mental health and therapeutic services to meet students' needs and efforts to ensure schools evaluate children in all areas, including social-emotional needs.

The Sandy Hook Promise—an organization founded by some of the victims' families—has added school-based prevention programs to its gun-law efforts. Those programs include "Start With Hello," a curriculum that "teaches children, teens and young adults how to be more socially inclusive and connected to one another," and "Say Something," which the organization describes as "training for children and teens on how to recognize signs, especially in social media, of an individual who may be a threat to them self or others and say something to a trusted adult to get them help." Organizers credit that program with helping several participating schools intervene in threats.

And parents of many of the children who died have started organizations in their names, each championing an approach to help students feel connected and supported at school.

Among them is Scarlett Lewis, who started the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation in honor of her son.

Lewis stood by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, as he announced a federal bill named in honor of her son earlier this year. Among other things, the Jesse Lewis Empowering Educators Act would provide professional-development funds for teachers to learn about social and emotional learning, the Associated Press reported.

"You can't shrug these things off and say it won't happen to my kids because it's happening to our children all across our country and it's unacceptable," Lewis said. 

Photo: White roses with the faces of victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting are attached to a telephone pole in January 2013, on the one-month anniversary of the shooting that left 26 dead in Newtown, Conn. --Jessica Hill/AP-File

Related reading about the Newtown shootings and school safety:

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