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This time of year I’m reminded of that Staples commercial that ran a few years back…


Celebrated nationally every May, Teacher Appreciation Week offers students, parents, and other school community members an opportunity to recognize teachers for the important work they do in contributing to the education and safety of our children. As professionals tasked with inspiring young minds and laying the foundation for future leaders and professionals, teachers often go above and beyond the call of duty. From spending lunch and after school time providing our students with extra support, to spending their own money on classroom supplies, to becoming emotionally invested in helping our students navigate school life, teachers have proven to not only be educators but also caregivers.

For these reasons and many more, we ask that you take this week to #ThankATeacher.

A heartfelt thank you note is always a welcomed gesture from both parents and students. Parents who have some free time can even consider volunteering in the classroom as another gesture of appreciation. If you are looking to help in other ways, you may also consider donating supplies to the teacher’s classroom, purchasing a gift card, organizing a potluck or catered lunch, or gifting spring blooms from your garden or local market.

Let us know how you are celebrating teachers this week. And if you are on social media, consider participating in the #ThankATeacher campaign.

Below are some statistics and facts that put the ongoing dedication of our teachers into perspective.

 

The morning of December 14th, 2012, my world was shattered, forever changed. An armed attacker broke into my daughter’s school. He took my daughter’s life and the lives of many other children and educators that day.

Like so many others in our little community, I was instantly devastated. The actions of one man had changed my life forever. I had no idea how to move forward or make sense of anything anymore. Yet, two days later, I would speak for the first time to a person who would again change my life forever, Michele Gay, Josephine’s mother.

Our daughters, sweet friends in this life, lovers of all things girly and fancy, had left this world for the next–together. Michele understood my pain and sorrow–and my desire to make meaning of it, to use this pain for a purpose. Together we made a choice. We chose to be inspired by our daughters. We would let them lead the way.

We focused on the world they shared together, the place where they made friends, shared laughter and learned together –school. This place was so special to our children and our families. It was the heart of our community. In honor
of our girls, we decided to help others protect this special place in their own communities. We made it our mission to ensure that every school is the safe, warm, welcoming place that every child deserves.

Together we created Safe and Sound Schools. With the help of an ever-growing, nationwide community of dedicated parents, educators, law enforcement, community members, and safety, emergency & mental health professionals, we have been able to create something to make our daughters proud.  Something that over the last four years has helped the communities close to us and all over the country. Together we have created a change that is working, inspiring others to work hard and work together for the safety of schools. We are honored to share the inspiration and spirit of our daughters to help other communities, and honored again and again to see this inspiration bring positive change to so many school communities.

On this fourth anniversary of our tragic loss, we choose again–to remember our daughters and their friends & beloved educators for the positive forces they were and continue to be. We marvel at the inspiring work of so many, work that makes our children and our schools safer.

There is much work to do, but we will never stop or give up.  We invite you to join us in remembering our daughters and carrying on their legacy. A legacy of helping others, connecting with people, working hard, and doing better–together.  

We thank you for your support of our families and our mission for Safe and Sound Schools.

#CelebrateEmilie #CelebrateJoey 

– Alissa Parker

On the morning of December 14, 2012, I received a phone call that changed my life forever. It was an automated phone call from the Newtown School District informing me that there had been a shooting at one of the schools. Shocked, I listened to the message waiting for information. There is a shooting? How did this happen? What do I do? What is happening with my daughter Emilie? What does her school even do in an event like this? But the message didn’t address any of these questions.

After the short recording ended, I stood there confused. I wondered what to do next. I was standing in a children’s store, Christmas shopping with my youngest daughter. I got into my car and started driving towards the school. I called my husband to see what he could find out. He said the shooting had been at the elementary school and he heard on the news that parents were not supposed to go to the school yet to pick up their kids. Desperate to do something, I went to the preschool to pick up my daughter Madeline. There I was told by other parents that it was okay to go and get our children at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I quickly loaded my daughters into the car and headed to the elementary school. The road was so backed up with cars and emergency vehicles. It felt like forever before I reached the school.

The driveway to Sandy Hook Elementary School was long and curved, the school not visible from the main road. The volunteer firehouse was situated at the corner of the main road and the school driveway. Approaching this corner, I took in the chaos. Children, educators, parents and first responders were all running around every which way. I imagined how scared Emilie must be around all that chaos and I couldn’t wait to find her. Cars were piled up everywhere and some cars were even parked on neighboring people’s lawns. As I ran down the road with my youngest daughters towards the school, I was told three different directions to find Emilie. By the time I reached the firehouse, I was confused, emotional and frustrated. What is going on? What am I supposed to do? Unable to find Emilie or her teacher, I was directed to the back of the firehouse. I was told to wait there.

I had imagined this room to be filled with joy as parents and children found each other and embraced with big hugs. Instead, the room filled up with parents like me. We waited and waited. Police officers and representatives from the school district were all there, but they looked just as confused as we did. I wanted to know what had happened. I wanted to know where Emilie was. But every time I asked for information, I was told nothing. What I didn’t know was that our beloved principal was gone. Without her, no one knew what to do. There was no orderly release of children to parents. Neighbors and family members were taking home other children, adding to the confusion and panic of parents arriving, unable to locate their child.

Only a week before the shooting at Sandy Hook, there had been an evacuation drill. It included an announcement, classroom lines walking calmly from the school and lining up at the firehouse, side by side. Controlled. What Sandy Hook had practiced wasn’t anything like the scene I saw that day. So many things never imagined happened that day. Part of our mission at Safe and Sound Schools is to help share our experience to help other schools around the country learn to be prepared. Schools that we have worked with across the country are now making change with us. They are preparing themselves for the unimaginable. What if their principal is unavailable? Who is the backup? Do teachers and students know where to go? Do the parents know the plan? By educating schools to ask these and many other questions, we are making an impact upon the preparedness and confidence of school communities nationwide.

untitled-design-9Help us spread the word and share our resources with other school communities. Explore our website and free resources to see how our team of experts can help your school prepare for safety.


Alissa Parker, Co-founder of Safe and Sound Schools and mother to Emilie Parker 

 

Scarlett Lewis, Founder of the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation, mother of Jesse Lewis, and Safe and Sound speaker/instructor, shares our dedication to the safety of children. Here she talks about her mission and Jesse’s legacy, teaching love and compassion to prevent violence and promote peace.

After the shooting death of my 6 year old son, Jesse Lewis, along with 19 of his classmates and 6 educators, two questions emerged from my shock and horror: How could something like this happen? What can I do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?

I watched as people began pointing fingers, first at the shooter, his mother, and then at guns, politicians, video games and media—all to no avail. When blaming and demanding that others fix the problem doesn’t work, what then?  We must take responsibility for what is happening to our children and in our society. We must be part of the solution. The truth is that every school shooting is preventable. Period.

nurturing-healing-loveBefore Jesse’s funeral, I found a message he had written on our kitchen chalkboard shortly before he died, “Norturting Helinn Love” (Nurturing Healing Love). Those three words are in the definition of compassion across all cultures. Love is as necessary to our healthy existence as food and water. This need unites and connects us all as humans. What if we could infuse our classrooms with love and teach all children how to give, and receive love?

The hard fact of the matter is, some children do not receive love at home and in their lives. I set out to figure a way to get Jesse’s message into classrooms with my understanding that if the shooter knew how to give, and receive love, our tragedy would never have happened. I found that this was already being done, through Social and Emotional Learning, “SEL”.

SEL has been around for decades and teaches children how to get along with one another, how to manage their emotions, have empathy for others and show compassion – basically how to be responsible and kind citizens. Children and adults without these skills suffer from feeling a lack of connection to others, impaired–if not disabled–ability to learn, increased physical and mental health issues, and increased rates of drug abuse and incarceration among other negative implications.

Studies show that children who receive SEL have better academic performance, more positive attitudes and behaviors, and experience less anxiety and depression. Long-term studies following kindergarteners who were taught Social and Emotional Learning skills into adulthood have found there were higher graduation rates and even less divorce rates among these individuals. In fact ALL the research on SEL shows that this is the most powerful and proactive mental health initiative we have, and cultivates safer and more positive classroom and school climates.

When I think about what we focus on in schools other than academics: anti-bullying, drug awareness, suicide prevention, sex education, it looks to me like we are teaching kids what not to do. Social and emotional learning teaches kids what to do by providing a positive focus on tools and skills that can help children feel good, about themselves and others.

Columbia University did a study recently that showed for every $1 invested in SEL programs there was an $11 return to the community. I can’t think of a better investment –in our children, in our safety, and in our futures. In fact, SEL has proven to be more important than academics, when determining future success. When children have these skills, personal and academic achievement follows.

The Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement is committed to making sure every child has access to this life-changing and life-saving education. This fall we are piloting our signature Choose Love Enrichment Program, Pre-K through 12th grade, that includes SEL, Character Values, Positive Psychology, Neuroscience, Mindfulness and more. The Choose Love Enrichment Program teaches children a formula to choose love in every situation, based on Jesse’s message. This is offered online and is free at www.jesselewischooselove. org.


Scarlett Lewis, Founder of the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation, mother of Jesse Lewis, and Safe and Sound speaker/instructor

Teacher and StudentIt’s that time of year. Schools across the nation are opening their doors to greet millions of students whom are a reflection of the future of our country. It’s an exciting time of year that, in my opinion, can be described in one word…fresh.

New paint, waxed hallways, and eye-catching bulletin boards will welcome back anxious and excited teachers and, of course, anxious and excited kids. Walking into the physical environment of school on that first day is always a memorable experience.

The word fresh could also be used to describe the social/emotional environment of our schools on the first day back in the classroom. Front and center are the relationships, both old and new, that ultimately shape the learning environment of the school. Everyone (And I do mean everyone) from the bus driver who greets kids in the morning to the teacher and principals that say goodbye in the afternoon plays a role in the creation of the quality of the learning environment.

As the new year begins, it is specifically those relationships between children and adults that will ultimately define the quality of the educational experience for each child when the year ends. Therefore getting off on the right foot is so very important. Over the years I have observed a number of great strategies to build the kind of trusting adult/child relationships needed for real learning to occur. Below are three of my personal favorites.

Front Porch Visits: One of the most impressive relationship building strategies I have encountered as both a parent and school administrator is the utilization of “front porch visits” by classroom teachers prior to or shortly after the start of the school year. I love the terminology. Unlike a “home visit,” which can be intimidating and inconvenient for some families, the “front porch visit” is exactly as the name implies. The teacher schedules a time to drop by and have a visit sitting or standing outside the front door as opposed to going inside the home. This simple gesture of good will brings down barriers and gives teachers the opportunity to start building a relationship with the children and parents early. It also gives teachers a chance to see first hand where each child is coming from before entering their classroom each day. That experience alone not only builds relationships, but also provides perspective that can help in the development of everything from individualized instruction to discipline plans.

In School Mentoring: As a school wide initiative I have to give kudos to Eastmorland Elementary in Joplin, Missouri. A few years ago they realized that their kids needed adult relationships inside the school beyond just the classroom teacher. Eastmorland’s solution? They identified all the adults in the building (Cooks, counselor, nurse, secretary, remedial teachers, custodians, principal, etc.) and assigned each adult a small group of students to touch base with on a daily basis. If nothing else, just to say, “Hi! How are you doing today??” This proved to be a fantastic way to build a greater sense of community inside the school.

Student Empowerment: At the foundation of every relationship is trust. Some of the most effective schools empower students by giving them leadership roles to take on special projects and organize initiatives. One thing I have learned after 20 years in the education business, kids of all ages are capable of doing amazing things when given the opportunity. As adults, we all have a desire to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Children are no different. Whether it happens inside or outside the walls of the school, adults can serve as a facilitator of service learning activities that give students a chance to make a positive difference. Whether it be projects like Mexico, Missouri’s second grade popcorn project that raises funds to send special needs kids to summer camp or in Pea Ridge, Arkansas’s Pea Ridge High School “Can”struction project to collect canned food items for needy families, kids can make a positive difference when given the opportunity.

Regardless of your school community’s approach to building relationships with students, the important thing to remember is that those relationships most definitely matter. Today’s myriad of social and emotional challenges faced by our youth means we need far more adults involved in the lives of our children on a day-to-day basis. Taking an internal approach utilizing the human capital you have available inside your school can go a long ways towards filling that void and setting an example for the rest of the community to follow.


CJ Huff is the retired superintendent of Joplin Schools in Joplin, MO. He is recognized nationally in the field of community engagement and 21st century education programming. 

 

Earlier this month, Safe and Sound Schools participated in the Understanding the Digital Disconnect – Parents, Teens and the Internet Twitter chat hosted by stopthinkconnect.org.

Modern day technology has drastically changed the ways in which we consume and relay information. Today’s media and communication landscape is much different than what we experienced as kids. As a result, today’s parents are faced with the growing challenge of raising tech savvy kids in a digital world without having lived through a “connected” childhood themselves.

After a summer of reconnecting with my kids, I fear losing them again to the stresses and digital social lives that comes with back to school. Sure, the internet and the growing number of social media outlets provide our kids with an opportunity to explore the world and socialize with friends, but the thought of cyberbullying, predators, or losing interest in the real world is frightening for many parents.

The #ChatSTC provided some good insights, whether your kids are new to social/digital media, or if you just need a refresher after the summer. Key tips from the chat include:

  • Talk to your kids. With the back to school season underway, a family tech talk discussion lends itself to perfect opportunity to remind your kids about the dangers of sharing personal information, location, and other types of content that may give predators insight into their life.
  • Explain the “why.” Parents can help students understand the reasoning behind tech/digital rules and/or restrictions by maintaining open dialogue, explaining their rationale, and helping them see the consequences of certain actions with supporting online news stories, and periodically checking in.
  • Involve your schools. Today’s schools can help children navigate the digital world safely by teaching healthy concepts of digital use and serving as a resource for parents who would like more information about the digital disconnect their child may be experiencing. Ask your students how they are using and talking about tech in the classroom. In addition, your child’s school counselor, psychologist, and tech specialist offer additional resources and insights to help bridge the digital divide.  

You can browse below if you’d like to explore more content related to the Twitter chat.

4-12 Boston Trip (44)Sometimes as a father of school aged children I feel like I spend a lot of my time on the sidelines. Whether that is cheering them on at a sporting event, nervously watching them in a recital, or complimenting them about a school project I didn’t know was due last Friday.

I often wonder: Do my children know how much I care about them? And, what else can I do to be more involved in their lives? And how can I keep them safe when I am not present?

Of course these questions are natural for fathers. We, like our counterparts, are required to sacrifice so much for the overall benefit of our children. As a parent –a father–there is nothing more important than the well-being and safety of our family.

After my oldest daughter, Emilie, was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary school, my wife Alissa and other grieving mothers from Sandy Hook met to support one another. As their relationships grew, so did their focus: ensuring the safety of children in school. The women started Safe and Sound Schools.  I am so impressed with what they have accomplished.

Like many of the other fathers, I supported them–from the sidelines. That was until I realized that this is a game I can join. This is a game I need to join.

Our children spend about the same amount of time at school each week as we parents do at work. As fathers, our responsibility to ensure our children’s safety and well-being goes beyond the walls of our own home.

As I have met with teachers, administrators, safety and security experts, I have found a group of people who genuinely care about my children’s safety as much as I do. Together we have recognized problems and found solutions that have benefited thousands of children.

If you want to know how to be more involved in your child’s life, in their safety, explore the Safe and Sound School site to access free resources. Get involved, your children will benefit from your love and hard work…whether they know it or not.

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Robbie Parker is husband to Alissa and father of Emilie, Madeline and Samantha. Robbie, is a Neonatal Physician’s Assistant, a contributor to Safe and Sound Schools and co-founder of the Emilie Parker Art Connection, founded in honor of Emilie’s love of art.

If a crisis occurs in the school or anywhere in public, it can be a very daunting experience for anyone, especially if they are not prepared. But, imagine what it would be like for a student with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Children with ASD have a difficult time responding to changes or interruptions in their schedules. They not only need structure, repetitiveness and consistent schedules, but they also must have access to the resources and tools to keep them safe.

At The Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation, our mission is to help families live life to the fullest. Through our programs and partnerships, people can access the services they need to lead active lifestyles and build their adult independence. Safety and preparation for a crisis situation is crucial for families to consider. This is why it is part of our core mission.

To give parents peace of mind, or at least help them prepare in case of an emergency, we have supported several safety initiatives including ALEC and SafetyNet Tracking Systems. Through Joey’s Fund, we have funded multiple fences for families who are concerned about the safety of their child but cannot afford to pay for one.

ALEC (Autism and Law Enforcement Education Coalition) is a first responder training program that provides an in-depth understanding of ASD to public safety and law enforcement personnel. We have supported ALEC’s Community Days in the Boston area to spread awareness about this safety program. ALEC’s Community Days allows individuals with ASD and their families to meet and interact with police, firemen and EMS in a non-emergency situation in their community. More information can be found through the Arc of South Norfolk at http://www.arcsouthnorfolk.org/alec-first-responder-training.html

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For over five years, we have also partnered with SafetyNet Tracking Systems (formerly LoJack SafetyNet) to provide children with autism GPS tracking bracelets through the Flutie Foundation’s Safe & Secure Program. This service enables public safety agencies to effectively search for and rescue individuals with autism who wander and go missing. SafetyNet not only provides the equipment for local law enforcement but offers a comprehensive training program to first responders. The program allows first responders to become familiar with the communication challenges an individual with autism may have and can adapt their search to rescue and return the individual home safely.

Another great resource to consider is Life Journey Through Autism: A Guide to Safety developed by Organization for Autism Research. It is a comprehensive guide for parents on safety issues and strategies to consider. It includes an Appendix for School Safety and Crisis Planning. You can download the guide for free at:   http://www.researchautism.org/resources/reading/index.asp#AGuideToSafety

Although we cannot prevent every tragedy or prepare for all crisis situations, we can better protect this at-risk population by educating ourselves and taking advantage of the growing number of safety resources that are available for individuals with autism.

Lisa Borges is the Executive Director of The Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism.

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Additional Resources

The National Autism Association has a lot of great resources and safety products for parents as well as a Safety Teacher Toolkit for educators in need of wandering prevention tools.

The Autism FYI Organization– their mission is to promote a safe environment for the increasing ASD population in their existing communities and is in the process of establishing a national registry for safety.

Autism SpeaksAutism Safety Project

 

 

Screen Shot 2016-04-12 at 10.23.19 PMWe are an autism family.  We will always be.  Our daughter’s short life on earth was a journey for our family—a journey through autism into faith, hope, and compassion.  Through Joey, we learned to look at the world differently, hold onto each other tightly, and love each other fiercely.  Although her journey through autism came to a tragic end on December 14, 2012, we are committed to sharing with others all that she taught us.  In her honor, we share our experiences and support other families on this journey through autism and work to keep ALL students safe in school.

Supporting Children and Families with Autism

Joey’s Fund is one way that we aim to support families and children living with autism.  We created Joey’s Fund in honor of our daughter’s generous and compassionate spirit.  While living with autism, our family relied on the support of many other families—some with autism and special needs children, and many on a more “typical” family journey.  Providing direct support for other families with autism is our way of giving back in Joey’s name and thanking the many people that supported us during Joey’s life and after her tragic death.  We chose the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism as the home for our daughter’s fund.  The Flutie family continues their journey through autism and supports many others along the way.  We are proud that Joey’s Fund is a part of their mission to serve some of the most amazing people in the world:  autistic children, adults, and families.  We are honored to remain a part of the autism community in this way.

Autism and School Safety

Our autistic children––with all of their gifts and challenges––are some of the most precious and vulnerable members of our communities.  Most parents find that sending their child off to school alone for the first time is a great challenge.  Imagine how it feels for the parents of an autistic child.  Like many children living with autism, our daughter could not speak for herself and could not communicate her needs without the help of caring adults and peers.  Our autistic children face all of the childhood challenges and dangers of their typical peers—and exponentially more, because of their autism.

We relied on a well-educated and highly trained school staff to keep our daughter safe on a day-to-day basis; but, it was up to us to ensure that her unique safety needs were provided for while she was in school.  Her physical safety on the playground, in the classroom, and in the cafeteria required constant supervision. Like many autistic children, she loved to wander, was attracted to water, and had complex dietary requirements.  Her social-emotional well-being depended upon the facilitation skills of the staff.  She needed trained, caring professionals to help her play and interact with her peers in order to develop relationships and friendships and help her communicate her ideas, needs, and wants.

And let’s not forget her peers. Joey was young and lucky enough to enjoy true friendships with many of her classmates. Friends like Emilie, Jessica, James (and too many others to name!) were the highlight of her school days. There are no words to express the gift that Joey’s friends were to her and the family that loved and protected her in this life. Yet even her exceptional peers needed a great deal of support to understand and safely play with Joey. The safety of her beloved friends required the support of an attentive and caring school community.

Not a day goes by that our family doesn’t think about Joey.  We consider ourselves blessed for the time we had with her and on our journey through autism.  We know we are blessed to have her inspiring us in our missions: Joey’s Fund and Safe and Sound Schools, working to improve the lives and safety of precious people like her.

Michele Gay, Executive Director, Safe and Sound Schools
Photo credit:  Cynthia McIntyre Photography