Sandy Hook Promise visits Fort Frye school

Photo by Michael Kelly Andrea Plant of Sandy Hook Promise swaps a “hey” and high-five with senior Draeden Turner at a presentation Thursday morning in the Fort Frye High and Middle School auditorium about a program being adopted by the school to use social inclusiveness as a long-term method of reducing feelings of isolation among students and ultimately preventing violence.

BEVERLY — When people react to the news of school shootings, many immediately think of security measures to keep violence out of buildings.

Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit founded by families of children killed in the Connecticut elementary school shootings nearly six years ago, has the long game in mind.

At Fort Frye High and Middle School Thursday morning, an all-student assembly got an hour-long briefing on ways to approach the problem that don’t involve locks, metal detectors, armed teachers or bullet-proof glass.

“We empower and help one population to prevent these events – students, young people like you,” Andrea Plant of Sandy Hook Promise told the gathering of more than 300 students from grades 7 to 12. “Sandy Hook Promise knows that you know things far in advance of anyone else.”

Most school shootings, from Columbine to Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, were committed by men under 20 years old who were either current or former students at the school and appeared to have acted out of a grievance against the school or other students.

Plant did not refer specifically to any shootings other than Sandy Hook, and referred to it only in her introduction. Her emphasis was on enlisting students to make their school a welcoming place for everyone.

“Social isolation can lead to feeling like nobody would know the difference if you were gone,” she said. “Socially isolated people are more likely to be the victims of bullying and violence, they live with depression … they are kids who prefer to be alone at lunch, before and after school, they’re anxious and uncomfortable around others. Over time, they feel excluded and left out by others.”

Plant went through a series of simple steps to make the school more inclusive and draw isolated students into the social mainstream.

Actions such as sitting with someone who appears to feel alone, reaching out to them on social media – “I’d hit them with a DM (direct message),” one student said, “Tag ’em in a post,” said another – inviting isolated people to join, or even a simple gesture such a smile and ‘hey’ passing in the hall, all can have the effect of making isolated people feel less excluded, she said.

On a school-wide basis, she said, ideas from Sandy Hook Promise include “no one eats alone” days, “hey day” in which students just offer an informal greeting to someone who looks to be alone, a “reach out” scavenger hunt in which students find out facts about each other by asking questions, and by extension a “get to know me” day.

“You start with ‘hello,'” she said. “But what then?”

Plant then offered conversation starters: What’s your favorite game? (Cheers erupted when one student replied “Fortnite!”) What’s your favorite animal? And a travel question – where have your shoes been?

She cooled off the talking and laughter in the auditorium and headed into the wrap-up.

“You can stop someone from being abused, from hurting themselves, from hurting a lot of other people,” she said.

After the presentation, sophomore Lydia Klinger and junior Brady Schilling discussed their impressions. Both are members of the school’s SAVE chapter – Students Against Violence Everywhere, an organization formed after the 1989 shooting death of a student in North Carolina and last year joined to Sandy Hook Promise.

Both said that during the presentation they immediately thought of classmates who needed help with isolation.

“I like the idea of trying to bring people out of their darkness,” Klinger said. “This has helped raise awareness and gotten people thinking.”

“It’s encouraged me to go up to those kids,” Schilling said. “It’s a way to make school a safer place, a more connected place for students.”

Teens, Klinger said, are very aware of the issues around school violence and willing to be engaged in prevention and change. “Say Hello” and the other Sandy Hook Promise programs being implemented at Fort Frye are actions that all students can undertake immediately, she said.

“It’s the easiest thing people can do, and they can do it now, it’s a way to start,” she said. “You can’t change everything right away, but this is the thing that’s most modifiable.”