How many more kids will we allow to be murdered before we start making real change?

A bus traveling from Newtown, Conn., to Monroe stops near 26 angel signs posted along the roadside on the first day of classes for Sandy Hook Elementary School students. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Following the murder of my 6-year-old son, Jesse Lewis, at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I was incredulous that no one took responsibility following the massacre of 20 first graders and six educators. One of the worst mass murders in U.S. history doesn’t happen out of nowhere. There had to have been a progression of incidences, unresolved issues, and lots of unprocessed anger that led to that kind of rampage. In the aftermath, it seemed to me that rather than be forthcoming with issues that led up to that event, there was a protective shield that was erected. This defensive posture was not conducive to problem solving and necessary change.

This lack of accountability was reflected in the advice given to the Sandy Hook victim’s parents about any attempt we would make to hold the school responsible. Ultimately we were told, even if everything we said was true, the school was immune from lawsuits. Sure there was lots of blaming and finger pointing. The shooter’s parents allowed their son to have access to guns despite ongoing mental health issues. The report that came out five years later was more defensive than helpful. At one point the families were told by investigative experts that the shooter chose to come back to his elementary school to perpetrate the crime because it was the last place he was happy. The facts that made it into the report show that couldn’t be further from the truth. Certainly it has not been helpful in deterring the myriad of shootings that have happened since. We’ve had over 350 school shootings since Sandy Hook and 28 this year alone! Will we accept this as America’s future?

Why does this keep happening? I believe every school shooting is preventable. There are almost always signs. Children without the social or emotional intelligence to deal with their difficult feelings end up expressing them in their behavior. It’s up to us to listen and provide them with what they need. The Sandy Hook School shooter had written a story in fifth grade about a witch that came to the school with a broomstick that opened into a semi automatic weapon and murdered kids. The story was read, and the writing physically taken from him, but there was no follow up. There are other shootings where this happened and individuals and agencies fell down on the job. In the Oxford, Michigan, school shooting, the student had drawn out his plans on paper in front of a teacher that day and then was allowed to return to the classroom. 

What we’re realizing is that the culture of a school is very important. There is a stair-step chart called the Pathway to Violence used by the Department of Homeland Security. It shows how a grievance can escalate, by steps, into an attack. Until now we’ve focused on the attack end by reacting after each school shooting and supposedly making changes based on what’s happened during each incident. What more and more school safety experts are realizing is that it is really the grievance end that we should also be focusing on. Prioritizing a more connected and compassionate school culture can reduce and even precede a grievance.  When educators and students prioritize teaching and practicing essential life skills such as relationships building, emotional management, and coping skills it cultivates a sense of trust and security. This creates a connected and compassionate environment. When students feel a sense of belonging and psychological safety they are happier, more well adjusted, and more likely to seek help.

Sandy Hook had all the hardening measures. In fact, my son Jesse and his classmates had just undergone an active shooter drill weeks before the actual tragedy. The week before the tragedy Jesse approached me after dinner and asked, “What would I do if a shooter came into my classroom?” My mom and I were doing the dishes together and I casually responded over my shoulder, “Run zigzag,” and then turned back to drying. Looking back, it’s unfathomable to me that I didn’t put everything aside and take him into my arms to further the discussion but what would I have said? You won’t ever have to worry about this? I would have been lying. 

We know our kids have unprecedented levels of anxiety and loneliness. Their brains are seized with fear and foreboding. They feel helpless and hopeless. This has escalated amidst COVID. There are enormous amounts of trauma and difficulties our children face on a daily basis. We have focused our efforts reactively until now. It’s time to be proactive and preventative. We can do this by addressing a school’s culture and the mental and emotional needs of our children. We must prioritize their mental well-being and we can do this by teaching them essential life skills such as social and moral awareness, making positive choices, and better emotional self regulation. Research shows this not only prevents violence as well as incarceration but it also increases grades and test scores. Rather than be immersed in anxiety and fear, having these skills and tools enables children to be present, and to learn.

On that fateful day nine years ago, Jesse didn’t listen to my advice on what he should do if a shooter came into his classroom. He didn’t run. He stood up to the shooter and saved nine of his classmates’ lives before losing his own. I am so proud of his efforts but our children shouldn’t have to defend their lives in school. Let’s prioritize our children’s safety and well-being. Establishing school cultures that focus on essential life skills equip students with what they need to succeed in every aspect of their lives, for the rest of their lives.

I quit my job after my son’s murder and have dedicated my life to making sure that every child has access to the essential life skills they need to flourish and to prevent another tragedy like the one where I lost my precious son.  

We need every one of us to take action. The time is now. I founded the Choose Love Movement to provide these essential life skills at no cost. Our mission is to serve EVERY CHILD in America and around the world. Will you join the movement to stop the next shooting before it happens?

Scarlett Lewis is the founder of the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement, a parent of a Sandy Hook victim and advocate for teaching essential life skills.