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Mark Barden

Cofounder and Managing Director, Sandy Hook Promise

“Don’t let lack of experience hold you back. When I launched Sandy Hook Promise, I didn’t have any special training to guide me.  If you have the passion, you can make a difference.”

Seven years ago, my life changed forever when my 7-year-old son Daniel, 19 of his classmates and six educators were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. I was devastated by this, but within weeks cofounded Sandy Hook Promise (SHP) to honor my son and protect other children from his fate. Since then, SHP has become a leading organization in school-safety and violence-prevention efforts, and more than 12 million adults and children have participated in our programs, averting school shootings and saving lives.

The problem I am trying to solve

School shootings have increased to alarming rates, with 112 shootings in 2019 alone. At the beginning of my journey, after Daniel’s death, Sandy Hook Promise was created as a way to try to prevent school shootings. We started with an effort to pass a universal background check bill. But despite the support of 90 percent of all Americans, the measure fell in the Senate in 2013. I knew then that if we wanted to create meaningful change to prevent students from becoming victims of gun violence, we would have to expand our strategy to include true prevention through educating students how to know the signs of someone at risk of hurting themselves or others and get them connected to the help they need. We decided to teach students how to recognize warning signs that a peer was in danger of harming themselves or others through our Know the Signs programs, and to report them to a trusted adult or through our Say Something Anonymous Reporting System. We’ve already received more than 60,000 tips since our reporting system launched two years ago, and more than a third of all tips received after the COVID-19 pandemic began have been designated as “life-safety” interventions.

The moment that sparked my passion

The loss of my son Daniel. While all three of my children — James, Natalie and Daniel — were exceptional when it came to looking out for other kids, Daniel took it to a whole new level. He had a very natural capacity for compassion and awareness of others. His teachers always commented about the fact that he was always the first to help other students, whether they were struggling with their emotions or having trouble putting on a jacket. The pain of losing him is almost insurmountable. If I wasn’t able to get universal background checks passed on the federal level, I wanted to honor my little Daniel’s unique personality while also protecting other kids and their families from such a horrible tragedy. What better way to do this than to empower other children to recognize chronic social isolation and other warning signs that their peers were in trouble?

What I wish other people knew

We’re not about taking people’s guns away. Our focus is on building a positive connected culture into schools. What we are doing works. Here’s one of many real-life interventions we have made: We were recently notified of a student who reported feeling helpless and suicidal during quarantine. It turns out the student actually had a suicide plan in place and access to a weapon. We were able to reach out in time to get the student to the hospital for mental health treatment.

Sandy Hook Promise also partners with researchers from the University of Michigan Youth Violence Prevention Center (MI-YVPC). In 2017, we conducted a pilot study together that concluded that our Know the Signs program had a significant positive impact in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the country. We now have funding from the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research to undertake a three-year follow-up study.

Every time we’re able to identify a kid exhibiting at-risk behavior and connect with them, we make our schools safer.  Even more importantly, teaching kids to recognize signs of violence or self-harm in their peers or in themselves is also helping avert abuse, cyberbullying and suicide. These are life lessons that will ultimately breed more empathy and compassion.

Advice to others who want to make a difference

Don’t let lack of experience hold you back. Before the mass shooting at Sandy Hook, I was a stay-at-home dad and professional musician. When I launched Sandy Hook Promise, I didn’t have any special training to guide me. But I figured I had nothing to lose by talking to lawmakers to make sure they did the right thing when it came time to vote on a universal background check bill and other gun-safety policies. The organization grew from there. If you have the passion, you can make a difference. The most important thing? Start by exercising your right and responsibility to vote. Any small action you do — like donating money to a nonprofit organization of your choice or raising awareness within your network — will help.

Why my approach is unique

Historically, efforts on gun-violence prevention have focused on “the gun,” rather than on the person holding the gun. The emphasis has been on policy change, rather than on getting upstream of gun violence. Sandy Hook Promise is the only national organization to research, develop and deliver age-appropriate trainings and support for students and educators to “Know the Signs” of potential violence. We spent a lot of time researching the root causes of school shootings in the United States, interviewing experts ranging from law enforcement, civil rights activists, parents, educators, medical professionals, clergy and even the National Rifle Association, and using their insights in our grassroots awareness and education.

Our belief is if we can empower both youth and adults with the knowledge and tools they need to prevent violence and self-harm before it occurs, we can offer a nonpartisan way to improve school safety and build a more inclusive culture for this and future generations.