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Dear Senator Hatch and Senator Klobuchar:

On behalf of Safe and Sound Schools, and our national community of schools, educators, parents, students, law enforcement officials, community members, mental health experts, and safety professionals, I would like to express our strong support for the Students, Teachers and Officers Preventing (STOP) School Violence Act of 2018, introduced in the Senate.

I am the mother of Josephine Grace Gay, killed in her first-grade classroom at Sandy Hook School, and the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Safe and Sound Schools. Our group of parents, survivors, teachers, and community members founded Safe and Sound Schools after losing our children and beloved teachers in the Sandy Hook School tragedy. Since our founding, we have been joined by national experts, health and safety practitioners, health and mental health experts, leading law enforcement and public safety professionals, school leaders, parents, students, community members, survivors, and victims of school-based tragedies. Our focus has always been —and will always remain— on school safety.

Despite a critical lack of funding for and attention to school safety in recent years, we have been working tirelessly and persistently in schools and professional communities across the nation since our tragedy to provide free tools, resources, education and training. In less than five years, we have reached every state in the nation and thirteen countries.  We work with and alongside organizations such as The Secure Schools Alliance, The Partner Alliance for Safer Schools, the National Association of School Resource Officers, the National Association of School Psychologists, the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement, Save the Children, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide a truly comprehensive approach to school safety that spans crisis prevention, response, and recovery.

Our schools desperately need this help.

The STOP Act answers a long overdue and nationwide need for school safety funding to provide critical infrastructure improvements, evidence-based education, training, and support, and modern-day security tools and technology that support comprehensive school safety. By reviving and significantly expanding grants through the U.S. Department of Justice, The STOP Act will greatly help schools struggling to implement critical safety programs and security measures, authorizing $100 million in funding per year through 2028. Such critically needed assistance has remained unavailable to our schools for far too long. The bill also updates the program to help schools utilize the most effective technology, equipment, training programs and technical assistance that align with the unique needs of each school community.

Sadly, our nation’s schools no longer represent a safe haven for our children and teachers. Instead, they represent targets for mass violence. We know this firsthand. We recognize that there will not be one single measure or action to solve the complex issues and factors that contribute to epidemic of mass violence. It will take many solutions and a truly layered approach to return our schools to safety. Therefore, we continue to advocate for a comprehensive approach to school safety and security in response to best prevent, respond to, and recover our school communities from such tragedies.

In our travels and work across the country, it is clear that ensuring safety has become an immediate and growing concern for students, parents, teachers, administrators and mental health and law enforcement professionals. Although progress has been made in identifying best practices and effective measures, our school communities struggle to implement these recommendations due to budget constraints, staffing challenges, aging facilities, and of course, educational priorities.

While federal assistance alone could never fully address these needs, it’s a start.

The STOP Act will save lives. Thank you for your thoughtful leadership in addressing the crisis facing our nation’s schools. We look forward to working with you and your colleagues in Congress to inform and support your efforts to restore our schools to safety.

Sincerely,
Michele Gay
Co-Founder/Executive Director
Safe and Sound Schools
(Joey’s mom)

While schools are among the safest places for young people in our society, the recent mass shootings and school shooting in Benton, Kentucky, can increase fears and safety concerns for children and parents.

While the odds of a child aged 5 to 18 years being the victim of a violent death at school are extraordinarily low, it can and does happen. Consequently, it is important for parents to have guidance on how to address such events with their children. Adapted from guidance we have developed for the National Association of School Psychologists, in this blog we offer some of our thoughts on how parents can support their children when they ask questions about school violence.

Develop and Foster Resiliency

Proactively developing resiliency can help your child develop resources needed to cope with trauma exposure. Internal resiliency can be promoted by:

  • Encouraging an active (or approach oriented) coping style (e.g., helping others, taking action to help yourself)
  • Teaching your child how to better regulate their emotions and solve problems
  • Providing your child guidance on positive, healthy ways of coping
  • Fostering self-confidence and self-esteem by building upon your child’s strengths
  • Validating the importance of faith and belief systems

External resiliency can be promoted by:

  • Facilitating school connectedness and engagement in school and community activities
  • Facilitating peer relationships
  • Providing access to positive adult role models

Provide a Safe Place to Talk

Next, let your child know you are willing to pay attention, listen, and without forcing them to do so, talk about school violence. Protect your child by answering questions truthfully and providing reassurance that adults will take care of him or her. When providing facts about school violence, avoid providing any unasked-for details that might increase fears and emphasize actions adults and their school are taking to help keep them safe.

Build Community Connections

Connect your child to others by engaging the assistance of your child’s teachers, a school psychologist, coaches/mentors, friends, and neighbors. Spend extra time with your child and encourage engagement in familiar routines and activities.

Take Care of Yourself

It’s important to be aware of your own emotions, and while it is okay to show some emotion, it is a problem when adults lose the ability to regulate their emotions or fears in front of children. Especially for youth in preschool and primary grades, this makes a situation seem more frightening. If you are struggling to cope with the reality of school violence, reach out to others with similar experiences, or seek professional help. Taking care of yourself, will help you to better care for your child.

Increase Self-awareness and Understanding

It is important for your child to learn how to identify and manage fear and anxiety related emotions. You might tell your child to listen to their body’s “alarm system.” Help them to understand that stress reactions can help to keep them safe from physical and emotional harm in a dangerous situation, but when danger is not present such stress is not helpful. Enlist the support of a school psychologist to help your child regulate emotions such as anger, anxiety, and fear.  Development of these skills empowers your child with knowledge that they have control over their emotions.

Build Confidence

Encourage positive messaging by helping your child to assert: “I am strong,” and “People care about me.” Help your child to understand that while they may not have complete control over their circumstances, they do have some control over how they respond to the situation and how they seek support. Review safety protocols their school has in place and what they can do to get to a safe location if there is a concern. Refer to Developmental Levels of Safety Awareness for information on providing such guidance.

Increase Empowerment through Engagement

Let your child know that his or her voice matters.  Help them find a way to be a part of the solution and a true stakeholder in safety.  Younger children may enjoy starting or joining a Safety Patrol at school, while middle and high school students may take a greater leadership role by starting or joining the Safe and Sound Youth Council  in their school.

Seek Help

If your child is distressed, keep in mind that recovery is the rule. However, if stress reactions do not begin to lessen after a week or more, consider seeking the help of a trained professional such as a school psychologist. This is especially important if your child has ever been directly exposed to an act of violence or has lost a family member.


Dr. Melissa Reeves is the Immediate Past President of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and a speaker and advisor for Safe and Sound Schools. Dr. Stephen Brock is a former President of NASP and speaker and advisor for Safe and Sound Schools.

In the hours, days, and weeks after an act of school violence, our nation predictably turns its focus to the mental health of the perpetrator. We often assume that the attacker’s behavior was caused by mental illness. This belief provides something of an explanation for us to hold onto in our shock and grief. Believing that the perpetrator suffered from mental illness allows us to distance ourselves just a bit from the individuals who would commit this type of violence. While this explanation may serve as comfort for our wounded psyches, is it valid? What does the research tell us about the connection between mental health and violence?

The majority of people with mental illness do not commit violent acts. A number of studies support the finding that a mere 4% of violence toward others in the U.S. can be attributed to people diagnosed with mental illness.[1] There are, however, specific severe mental illness diagnoses linked to slightly higher rates of violence – schizophrenia, which is characterized by disorganized thoughts and behavior and perhaps a loss of touch with reality, along with the major mood disorders, bipolar disorder and major depression. The truth is, persons with mental illness are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence.[2] Mental illness does, however, carry an increased risk of violence toward oneself – suicide.[3]

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We also know that alcohol and drug use and abuse significantly increase risk for violence toward self and others in both mentally ill and non-mentally ill populations.

Mental illness, then, is not the sole cause of school violence. Roughly 1 in 4 people in the U. S. have a diagnosable mental illness and most of them do not feel compelled to act violently.[4] Mental illness is just one risk factor, and the presence of risk factors does not necessarily result in a specific outcome. Many factors are involved in this process.

How can we reliably determine which individuals are at risk for perpetrating violence in our schools?

The practice of threat assessment, developed over the past twenty years, is the tool we use to investigate and determine the level of risk posed by a given individual. Its focus is not on predicting, but on preventing violence.

Quite simply, we can get a glimpse into someone’s mind by observing precisely what the individual says and does. We review all risk factors, behavioral warning signs, and violence inhibitors, to obtain a more complete picture of whether the individual is heading toward violence. Then, we can intervene, get help for the person, and manage the possible threat in a way that will keep others safe. If we find that we do have concerns about the individual’s mental health, this is the time to summon the person’s support system and refer him or her for assistance.

This discussion would not be complete without acknowledging that in the aftermath of a number of school shooting attacks, previously overlooked indicators of undiagnosed mental illness were uncovered.[5] While the incidence of school shooting is rare, and the link between mental illness and violence is tenuous, we always want to watch for signs of possible mental health issues, and attend to them swiftly.

Other risk factors and warning signs of violence include access to weapons, substance use/abuse, noncompliance with psychiatric medication or treatment, fascination/preoccupation with weapons and violence, a commando mentality, holding onto grievances, a model or script for using violence to solve problems, feelings of envy, anger, rage and hopelessness, a sense of being entitled to revenge for a perceived wrong, and a feeling of marginalization from peers. Can a distorted sense of reality or skewed thought patterns be behind some of these factors? Absolutely!

There are also specific protective factors shown to inhibit violence. These may or may not be present in a given individual’s life. It is the totality of the situation that ultimately determines the outcome.

Small steps we can take each day to keep our schools safe include making vital personal connections with our students, fostering a positive, equitable school climate, educating others and ourselves about the risk factors and warning signs of mental illness, suicide, and violence, and keeping a watchful eye on students. We can develop a process in our schools for referral, assessment, and intervention to provide the help our students need. With all of these preventive measures in place, we can trust that we’ve made our schools a much safer place to learn.

– Susan Sibole, B.A. Psychology, M.S. Counseling Psychology, Youth Risk Prevention Specialists
Founder of Youth Risk Prevention Specialists and creator of the SafeAware program, Suzanne Sibole works with school districts nationwide to significantly increase their levels of safety. With the SafeAware program, schools receive step-by-step assistance developing safety and crisis response plans and setting up violence threat assessment teams. Suzanne trains all staff on everyday school safety, detecting the warning signs of suicide and violence, and the importance of reporting and following up. She then works with key staff members until they are confident assessing individual cases and managing potential school threats. She also speaks to parents about their critical role in school safety and violence prevention. Suzanne has trained at the Gavin de Becker Academy, is a member of ATAP (Association of Threat Assessment Professionals), and works with with national school safety and threat assessment experts.

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[1] Friedman, Richard A., M.D. The New York Times, December 17, 2012.

[2] Brekke JS, Prindle C, Bae SW, Long JD. Risks for individuals with schizophrenia who are living in the community. Psychiatric Services. 2001; 52(10):1358–1366. [PubMed]

[3] University of Washington School of Social Work http://depts.washington.edu/mhreport/facts_suicide.php

[4] Singh, Pavita, MPH. Huffpost Media, Jan 28, 2016

[5] Langman, Peter. School Shooters: Understanding High School, College, and Adult Perpetrators, Rowan & Littlefield, January 2015