For Nicole Hockley, the mother of a child killed during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, this week marks an important milestone on a journey that began with her 6-year-old son Dylan’s death four years ago.
On Monday, Miami-Dade became the first school district in the country to implement Sandy Hook Promise — a violence-prevention program founded by Hockley and others who lost family members during the massacre — in all of its schools.
The district launched the initiative with an assembly at John A. Ferguson Senior High School in West Kendall, which piloted the program last year. Students passed out name tags and wore T-shirts emblazoned with “Start with Hello,” a call to greet classmates and reach out to isolated students.
“It’s about stopping these acts from ever happening in the first place and a lot of that can be done at a program level by teaching people,” Hockley said.
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Sandy Hook Promise aims to foster social inclusion and also trains students and staff to recognize signs of trouble and intervene before students turn to violence. Last year, students at Ferguson High organized activities like “speed friending,” and encouraged classmates to have lunch with someone who was eating alone and to share positive messages written on post-it notes.
Now that the program has been expanded across Miami-Dade, other schools will host their own version of the social inclusion activities, and teachers, administrators and students will receive mental-health training.
Hockley and her team have worked to promote Sandy Hook Promise nationwide, and individual schools in 49 states have adopted at least some of its programs. So far, the organization has trained over 1 million people, and that training has helped prevent a bomb plot at an Ohio school and multiple suicides.
At Ferguson High, students hope that in addition to preventing acts of violence, the program will make life a little easier for those who feel left out.
Being an adolescent you definitely want to belong. And when you don't have those belonging needs met, they can trickle into something greater later on.
Michelle Vigoa-Suarez, psychology teacher at Ferguson High School
With over 4,000 students, Ferguson is one of the largest high schools in Miami-Dade, and students say it is easy to get lost in the crowd.
“It creates a sense of isolation, having so many people,” said senior Helen Cheng, a member of the psychology honor society, the group that organized the Sandy Hook Promise activities last school year.
Cheng became interested in Sandy Hook Promise because she knows what it’s like to feel lonely. In middle school, Cheng says she ate lunch with the school counselor every day because she didn’t have anyone else to eat with. “It’s something that spoke to me personally and something I always wanted to do,” she said of the social inclusion activities.
Other students, like seniors Stephanie Malta and Arlette de la Rosa, got involved because the 2012 Newtown, Conn., shooting left an indelible mark on them.
“I vividly remember where I was when I learned about the Sandy Hook massacre,” said Malta. When representatives from Sandy Hook Promise gave a presentation at Ferguson last February, she remembers thinking, “What if we have this force to just have all the students do something together?”
Michelle Vigoa-Suarez is the faculty sponsor for the psychology honor society at Ferguson and believes Sandy Hook Promise encourages students to reach out to their classmates at a crucial time in their lives.
“Being an adolescent you definitely want to belong,” Vigoa-Suarez said. “And when you don't have those belonging needs met, they can trickle into something greater later on. If you can just meet one or two people in high school who you can talk to, that makes a difference later on.”
Nationwide, Sandy Hook Promise has expanded quickly over the past year and a half. The organization started in the aftermath of the school shooting with the goal of passing gun-control laws, but decided to focus on violence prevention programs in early 2015 after efforts to expand background checks for gun purchases failed.
All of the training and activities are completely funded by the organization at no cost to school districts, and Hockley said demand for the programs currently exceeds Sandy Hook Promise’s resources.
After the roll out in Miami-Dade, Sandy Hook Promise will be implemented in Los Angeles schools in January 2017. The organization is also in the process of finalizing an agreement with the Chicago school district. Both are cities that, like Miami, lose far too many young people to gun violence every year.
Just last weekend, six teenagers were injured in a shooting outside a “sweet 16” birthday party in Miami-Dade.
Retired Heat star Alonzo Mourning and new Heat player Wayne Ellington were among the guests at the Ferguson High event Monday calling for an end to the bloodshed.
“Miami, wake up, this is our community,” Mourning said at the assembly. “I don’t care what area code you’re from. I don’t care what part of South Florida you’re from. This is our community and there is no such thing as somebody else’s kids.”