The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school shook a community. A group of residents is making sure the tragedy helps others.
By David Cummings
The logo used by the Sandy Hook Promise tells the organization’s story. A tiny arm reaches up from the ground, with five little fingers stretching out from a hand to replicate a small green tree. The entire design draws upon the image of a tree sprouting. Hands intended to look like leaves surround each finger. There are 26 of them—each symbolizing an individual shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. Twenty of the victims were children aged 6 or 7 years.
Here we are. Seven years after the Dec. 14, 2012 shooting that put Newtown, Conn., on the list of America’s worst catastrophes. The massacre along with the 1999 Columbine High School terror (13 killed, more than 20 wounded), the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting (32 killed, at least 17 injured) and the 2018 Parkland, Fla., high school attack (17 killed, 15 wounded) are calamities people will never forget. There have been senseless murders on campuses, at movie theaters, and workplaces across the country, but Sandy Hook stands out. Little kids, first- and second-graders were the victims. Lives cut too short.
Nicole Hockley and Mark Barden each lost a child in the shooting. Hockley’s son, Dylan, was six years old. Barden’s son, Daniel, was 7. The parents didn’t know each other before the incident. Their shared misery created a bond. “I joke Mark is like my older brother, and I’m his annoying younger sister,” said Hockley. Their mission to prevent further gun violence from attacking families and forcing them to go through the pain of loss led to the creation of the Sandy Hook Promise. “Initially it started with community members, even people who did not lose someone but were part of the community or had a kid at the school,” said Hockley. “Some people had kids who went there previously. We came together and said, ‘We have to do something.’”
Sandy Hook Promise has made tremendous strides in the intervening years. In 2018, the STOP School Violence Act passed Congress, funding $100 million to implement programs like anonymous reporting systems and other school safety improvements. In 2016, President Obama signed the 21st Century Cures Act after SHP had worked for almost four years toward the inclusion of mental health parity. The organization’s outreach has been widespread, with 7.5 million educators, parents, community leaders, and students trained in its program and practices; more than 3.5 million supporters have made the promise to help protect children by preventing gun violence.
“I know that what I’m doing with Sandy Hook Promise is making a difference,” said Barden. “And I feel it’s a very appropriate way to honor my son that way. And I feel that we are absolutely preventing other families from living this pain. And we’re building more connected communities and schools across the country in the process.”
It all started two days after the tragedy. Residents took long walks in the hills of Newtown or met at the local library, or in people’s homes. Newtown is a small community located in Fairfield County. With a little more than 28,000 residents it’s one of those bed and breakfast-type towns that have a feel of Mayberry meets suburbia. The shootings cut deep. Being so close to Christmas made it worse. “We started reaching out to impacted families and let them know we had no agenda,” Hockley says. “We just wanted to let them know we’re here if you’re interested.”
Sandy Hook Promise’s charge is to shed light on how to prevent gun violence. In America’s long history of gun violence, 85 percent of the shooters had been bullied, according to research conducted by the Academy of Critical Incident Analysis at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. It’s also possible that many shooters had some form of mental illness. Adam Lanza, 20, the shooter at Sandy Hook fits the profile. Barden says Lanza’s background is an example of why the Sandy Hook Promise must educate people on the importance of being aware of the actions of friends, family members, or strangers.
Research shows individuals who commit violent crimes, like mass murder, often exhibit telltale signs. Lanza, who shot and killed his mother, was a ticking time bomb. Stopping the explosion is the impetus behind Sandy Hook’s many campaigns. The organization’s impact is nationwide. Following the shootings, school districts across America started developing safety plans. Doors are no longer left open for anyone to enter a building. Camera’s adorn all entrances, and visitors must be buzzed in and immediately sign in at a guard desk. While these efforts have not prevented school tragedies like the one at Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, there is no way to know how much of a difference they have made. The organization’s website (www.sandyhookpromise.org) is a plethora of information. It’s been a guidebook on gun violence, mental health support, and advocacy programs. Their efforts continue to create interest. The organization recently announced more than 11 million students and educators have participated in one or more of the Know the Signs program since 2014. Its Say Something initiative trains children and teens about recognizing signs, especially in social media, an individual who may be a threat and how to alert an adult for help. Say Something, along with Start With Hello, are some of the prevention programs on SHP’s website. Click on the Get Involved link, and plenty of information awaits anyone interested in supporting or participating in its efforts.
The undertaking has not been easy for Hockley and Barden, who signed on to SHP full-time. Their official titles are founder and managing director. Tim Makris, another full-timer, is the third founder and managing director. His child was one of the 12 students who made it out safely from the two classrooms Lanza attacked. Hockley and Barden are the official spokespersons for SHP. Hockley was a marketing and communications executive for two decades. Barden is a musician who stopped touring to spend time with his family. He came to realize he could honor Daniel’s legacy by dedicating all of his efforts to SHP’s initiatives to stop gun violence.
Today, a team of more than 100 workers has grown the group into a national support effort that truly educates people on how to look for potential problems. Early on, SHP rolled out programs in Ohio and Connecticut and in 2016 its initiative in Miami-Dade County reached 100,000 middle school and high school students. Sandy Hook Promise’s programs and call-to-action weeks have gone nationwide. And even though the organization started and is still based out of Newtown, Hockley says members are very respectful of the community and the impact the tragedy had on everyone. “We don’t represent Newtown, and we don’t represent the 26 families,” Hockley says. “We have been expanding, and we’re growing with massive momentum behind us.”
Those 26 leaves on the logo are reason enough to keep going.