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Ensuring the safety of a school community is a tough job under normal circumstances–and these past 6 months have been anything but normal. As we look ahead to a new school year, the job is more challenging and more important than ever. For months now, our school communities have continued the heroic work of providing for the basic and educational needs of children, youth and families through the COVID-19 crisis. And as the year began to draw to a close, school district leaders began “sharpening their pencils” to plan ahead for a very uncertain school year.

Then the tragic death of George Floyd shifted conversations in communities, large and small, across the country to the role of police in our schools and the programming needed to overcome long-standing race and equity issues in our nation.  Another defining moment in our history emerged – one that will shape future generations. The role of our schools in the collective efforts of our progressing nation cannot be emphasized enough.

Only a month earlier, Safe and Sound Schools had initiated a series of focus groups to discuss the reopening of schools this fall across the country. Through these discussions we were able to offer support through these crises and gather data to inform our summer webinar series, “Return to Learn With Safe and Sound Schools” set to kick off on July 7th.  For the past several months we’ve heard from parents, teachers, school social workers, counselors, psychologists, nurses, principals, superintendents and yes… students as they shared their hopes, fears, concerns and challenges as they think about the upcoming school year.  In some ways, the focus groups felt like virtual support groups as peers from across the country quickly found they shared much in common.

Although the data collected exceeded our expectations, it was the sincere passion and love for our children that we wish we could pass on to each person reading this blog. As one teacher put it, “I don’t know what I will do if I don’t get to see my kids this fall.” That is the inspiration behind our Safe and Sound “Return to Learn” webinar series! We hope you can join us to make the hope of that joyful reunion of teachers and students–in whatever form it takes–a reality this fall.

Well, it’s certainly not the end of the school year that any of us imagined! As the mom of a graduating senior, I feel for the graduates, and so many others who won’t celebrate their milestones and accomplishments in the ways they had hoped.

As a former teacher, I feel for the classes missing end-of-the year picnics and field days, the little kindergartners dressed up for Kindergarten graduation, the rising middle schoolers and high schoolers closing another chapter and looking onto the next.

All across the country, our students have had to learn to take it all in stride and find ways to mark the end of another year and be grateful—and hopeful about the future. Schools and families have answered with creativity and generosity, planning one-of-a-kind celebrations for these important milestones in student and school life.

Here are a few of my favorites, shared by Safe and Sound community members:

  1. A surprise neighborhood parade – These started cropping up first as birthday and even wedding celebrations, but one neighborhood added a socially distant band performance of pomp and circumstance by elementary and middle school students for the high school grads on the street.
  2. Yard bomb celebrations – Many students are waking up to yards COVERED in signs, posters, balloons, streamers, and crazy inflatables.
  3. Drive-in (and through) ceremonies – Some schools have used drive in theaters, retrofitted parking lots, and athletic fields to gather carloads of families to celebrate safely together.
  4. Through-the-Years scavenger hunts – Families and neighborhoods have pre-planted clever series of clues, gifts, and cards, celebrating memories of students from early years through 2019-20.
  5. Big screen celebration slide shows – For friends, family, and neighbors to enjoy from their porches and cars
  6. Fireworks displays – Where allowed of course!
  7. Street-lining signage – for neighborhood-wide congratulations of students and grads driving by.
  8. Crazy car decorations – Bigger is better this year! In addition to the typical streamers and soap-written messages, cars stuffed with balloons and gifts from family and friends are a big hit.
  9. Decorate the door (or mailbox) –Invite friends and family to leave decorations for your grad to find “when the doorbell rings” or when they open the mailbox.
  10. Chalk the Walk – Invite friends, neighbors and family to decorate your walk or driveway with congratulatory messages.
  11. Tailgate to Celebrate – Family and friends gather to park their cars 6 feet apart, play music and bring their own picnic foods.
  12. Virtual Game Show – Take your Zoom celebration up a notch by organizing the group in a trivia game all about your grad.

Got more good ideas? Email them to us at info@safeandsoundschools.org and we’ll share the ideas on social for others to enjoy!!


Author’s Bio: Michele Gay is Co-founder & Executive Director of Safe and Sound Schools. A former teacher turned school safety advocate, following the loss of her daughter in the Sandy Hook School tragedy, Michele speaks and travels to communities across the country on a mission: every school safe and sound.

It is not unprecedented that a teacher, school employee, or student may die when school is not in session; summer break is one example. The difference now, of course, is that we can’t gather in person to honor the life and commemorate the loss of someone in our school community. The need for physical distancing does not require social separation. There are numerous actions and activities that schools and parents can take to provide opportunities for children and teens to recognize and mourn those who die during this quarantine period.

Most school policies on responding to the death of someone in their community likely have not considered how to adapt those policies when school might still be technically in session, but not in person. Whatever you call the current schooling options – online, virtual, remote, or distance learning – none of these modes are particularly conducive to collectively memorializing a deceased friend, peer, teacher, or other school staff. However, existing policies and procedures can be adapted for this new reality, and here are some options to consider:

Zoom, Facebook Livestream and/or Videoconference Remembrance Sessions

All of these platforms pre-date COVID-19 and the current restrictions about gathering in groups of more than 10 people. Numerous folks have used them for live-streaming memorial or funeral services when family members could not attend due to cost, distance, or health reasons. Schools can use this technology, in coordination with the wishes of the family of a deceased teacher, student or school staff member for all in the community to gather, albeit remotely.

Video Clips

All smart phones have video capability, and in the face of our inability to meet face-to-face, we can still communicate to each other, to family members, and to our larger school community in sharing thoughts and reminiscences after the death of someone in our community.

Write and Draw

Even if virtual opportunities are offered, parents can help their children participate and honor a deceased teacher, friend, or school staff member by having them write memories, draw pictures, and share these on-line and/or with the family of the deceased.

Have your Own Small Remembrance Service

If there is no opportunity to participate in rituals through the family’s plans, and your child’s school doesn’t take the initiative to respond to the death, you can still take have your own remembrance ceremony or service in your home. It may be as simple as lighting a candle and sharing memories about the person who died. You can write a letter together to the family of the deceased, especially since they are grieving both the death and the inability to gather with others for connection and community support.

Despite the challenges presented by physical distancing, the worst thing we can do is to do nothing. Families will appreciate every gesture of kindness; and we are showing our children that in the face of considerable odds, we will find ways to honor and remember those who die during this time of forced separation.


Donna Schuurman, EdD, FT
Sr.Director of Advocacy & Training, The Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families
www.dougy.org

Last year, Safe and Sound Schools launched The Good Days Tour, a nationwide contest to promote positive school culture in high schools across the country. We teamed up with teen actor Jeremey Ray Taylor and the band Chasing da Vinci to bring a live workshop and concert to the winning school.  

In February, we announced our first winning school–Hollister High School outside Springfield, Missouri! For their contest submission, Hollister students submitted two impressive videos about the importance of student involvement in school safety.  Shortly after announcing Hollister as the winner, our team, along with Jeremy and Chasing Da Vinci, flew out to the beautiful state of Missouri where we were warmly welcomed for a fantastic assembly with the students at Hollister. 

And they did not disappoint! The student energy and excitement was contagious! The assembly was filled with music, laughter, and hope – as we shared stories from Hollister students that have created “Good Days” through acts of kindness in their school.  My favorite moment was seeing Jeremy Ray Taylor instruct the students to turn on their cell phone flashlights to demonstrate the power of sharing kindness with others. I will never forget seeing the dark assembly room light up with the individual lights from each student. It truly touched my heart.  

 I flew home from Missouri the following day as our world was quickly changing. Social distancing, school closures, and stay-at-home orders emerged as COVID-19 spread throughout the United States. Suddenly the packed school assembly, the hugs and handshakes we received in Hollister all seemed like a distant memory.  

Despite the feelings of fear and anxiety, my heart, like in Hollister, was once again touched by the support and service seen from students across the country. This gave us an idea…Good Days are still on the horizon for our students and our schools, and we can look forward to those together.  

Today, Safe and Sound Schools is launching the “Good Days Ahead” Contest – a NEW virtual twist on our campaign, spotlighting the positive acts of kindness of our students and the impact they are having today to bring good days ahead in their communities.  Once again, we are teaming up with Jeremy Ray Taylor and the band Chasing da Vinci to bring students a truly memorable experience!  

Participation is easy! During the month of May, students will use the hashtag #GoodDaysAhead to post a video or picture on Instagram sharing how they are working to bring good days ahead through acts of kindness today. It can be as simple as planting positive yard signs, weeding a neighbor’s garden, sewing masks for healthcare workers, or tutoring a struggling student over Zoom. You can also nominate another student you have seen make a positive impact on others.

We’ll select three winners for a virtual “meet and greet” with Jeremy Ray Taylor, which will be announced during the “Good Days Ahead” Livestream on June 6, 2020.  Learn more about how to enter by clicking here to see full contest rules.   

We look forward to hearing your stories soon!


Alissa Parker, Co-Founder of Safe and Sound Schools

Q and A with Michele Gay

I overheard a conversation the other day in the grocery store (from a distance of course) where one well-intended shopper said to another “We’re all in the same boat.” The other shopper replied, “I don’t think so. Maybe the same sea, but way different boats.”

One of our favorite team members, Susan Parziale, has been especially on my mind this month. It’s April and this month is special to both of our families because it’s Autism Awareness Month, time to celebrate our children and families, and so many inspiring individuals with Autism. Having daughters with Autism is what brought us together years ago.

Sue and I sat down recently to check in and talk about the unique challenges in her “boat.”

From left to right: Jonathan, Jenna, and Susan.

MG: What’s going on in your world right now?

SP: Well, “my world” is now “my house!” Here in Massachusetts, we have been in full “stay home” since the beginning of March. Our daughter attends a full day, year-round school to meet her needs. Under normal circumstances, any interruption to school is a challenge for us, so as you know, this long-term shutdown has hit us especially hard. Like most children and adults with Autism, our daughter thrives on daily structure and consistency. Services after school for life skills, swimming and outings in the community are also essential to her progress and stability. Of course, none of those things are happening now and her daily routines have been upended. We are seeing difficult behaviors–that we had conquered in the past–rear up again. Normally, school and support staff would do a home visit to assist, but obviously that’s just not possible now.

MG: So what kind of support can you get from school right now? What does schooling from home look like for you and your family?

SP: We start each morning with a parent/teacher consult via Zoom to discuss a daily program. Because my daughter is a teen, we are focusing on life skills (e.g., laundry, trash, making the bed, preparing small meals, etc.). There is sure a lot of time to reinforce those skills at home right now! A few times a week have a 1:1 Zoom call with one of her teachers to work on a task with her iPad program L.A.M.P. (Language Acquisition through Motor Planning). We are lucky to be able to do at least some programming this way. I am grateful that the activities are still set by the school staff, but obviously I have to work on all of the programming with my daughter throughout the day. This means taking turns with my husband to do our own work–often at odd hours!

MG: What’s been an unexpected benefit?

SP: I am an organized person by nature so staying on task and focused has come in handy with keeping a daily schedule for all of us. The family walks have been a nice benefit too. Like most families, we only had time on the weekends for walks and weather was always a factor since we live in the Northeast. Before COVID-19, we would have never gone for a walk in cold
weather, now we do not bat an eye because it is an essential part of our day—and our sanity!

MG: What’s been the hardest?

SP: The hardest part is the Autism meltdowns. We have created a safe calm-down space where our daughter is free to go for breaks, but I feel so helpless in soothing her through these. We just have to ride it out, but it is incredibly stressful as a parent. She also has been exhibiting perseverating behaviors [repeatedly asking] for certain places and people. It is very difficult for her to understand that we can’t go to these places and see these people that are normally part of her life.

MG: How have you had to adjust expectations for yourself and your family to make this work?

SP: We get up at the same time each day; start home school and then take our afternoon walk. It’s a little like Groundhog day for us! But we know that it’s just what we need to do for our daughter. We give her a daily printed schedule each morning to show her the plan. We try our best to keep to this schedule but have learned that we have to roll with the unexpected. I’ve also learned to give her breaks whenever she asks. It’s a give and take.

MG: How are you taking care of yourself so that you can be the best version of yourself for your family?

SP: To deal with stress, I exercise each day with online classes by my local gym, I have Zoom meetings with other parents of children with Autism and we discuss our challenges and give suggestions to each other. I also call my family each day to check on how they are doing. And my husband and I are watching a lot of comedies!

MG: I know you are still working out! I can tell—even on Zoom. I’m so glad you are finding ways to stay connected with other parents too. The support of your “Autism tribe” can be literally lifesaving. It makes such a difference. You’re one of the most positive, forward-thinking people I know. Before I let you go, will you share what gives you hope for the future?

SP: Now that we are 30+ days in with our focus on life skills and home schooling, I find I’m more confident that I can handle teaching my daughter all sorts of skills that she will need when entering adulthood. I guess I am more capable than I thought. For lots of parents supporting a child with Autism, the transition to adulthood is daunting to say the least. Somehow, I feel a little more ready to face the challenge…An unexpected silver lining in all of this.


Susan Parziale, Administrative coordinator for Safe and Sound Schools, NAPO professional organizer, owner Organizing Offices and Homes
Michele Gay, Co-founder of Safe and Sound Schools

Remembering Red Lake: Missy Dodds, Former Teacher and Survivor of the Red Lake High School Tragedy, Remembers 3.21.05

This past week has been a roller coaster. On Monday, I sent my kids to school. By Wednesday, they were home–likely for the rest of the school year. When I picked them up from school on Tuesday, I was sad. I empathized with the teachers and staff as they said goodbye to their students, not knowing when they might see them again. My heart hurt for teachers who did not get to finish the school year as they had planned. My eyes welled with tears as I heard my own kids say to their friends, “See you in eight days.” I have not found the guts to tell my kids it will be longer than eight days.

My heart truly hurts for all teachers, students, and families as schools shut down across America. I know the feeling of “losing school.” It’s not easy when the place that is the center of your world –school– is ripped away without any notice. It’s painful and unfair.

Fifteen years ago this week, Monday, March 21, 2005, my world was ripped apart. A former student shot his way into my classroom at Red Lake High School. He killed five of my students and a co-worker, wounded four students, and left the rest of us with scars yet to heal. I know the feelings of having one’s world shattered in seconds. We “lost school” as we knew it.

Fifteen years later; we, the survivors and the community, are still adjusting to our new normal. We are walking a path never imagined.

The same is true for students and teachers across the country today.

I have found myself struggling with the same questions this week as I have the past 15 years: Who? How? Why? What? When? In today’s COVID-19 crisis, the answers can be framed with science. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of a school shooting, the answers are not as simple. Like many mass shooters, my former student fell through the cracks. This does not excuse his actions. Instead, it reveals that mental health is a huge component in school safety. The significance of mental health in schools can no longer be overlooked.

I see this as my own kids adjust to their new normal right now. I see the impact of “losing school” on their mental health. I see frustration and anger in my 1 st graders. The center of their world is gone for now. I see my 3 rd grader struggle with the loss of her social community. I see how my children’s mental health depends on school.

If there is anything we have learned as a nation this week, it is the importance of schools. Our schools are the heart and soul of our communities. They provide far more than education to our children. They provide food, friends, structure, and purpose. Our schools support our families. Our schools are the pillars of our communities.

Today’s COVID-19 closures are temporary. Normal school life will resume. When it does, I ask you to remember and advocate for the mental health supports that our schools provide. Please support your school’s mental health programming, staffing, and advocacy for all students. Like me, and like my Red Lake school community, all too many others know how mental health matters. When it comes to the safety of our schools and communities, our ability to meet the mental needs of our students and families can make all the difference.


Missy Dodds is a former high school math teacher and school safety advocate. She is a survivor of the Red Lake High School shooting. Missy serves as a National Parent Ambassador for Safe and Sound Schools. Her email is missydoddsparentcouncil@gmail.com and her Twitter @DoddsMissy