On a cloudy Friday morning, eighth-grade students filed into the cafeteria at Millswood Middle School to learn how to recognize and report the warning signs of violence.
“If you can start to recognize these warning signs, these red flags, you can prevent violence right here at your school,” Jill Graham, a speaker for the nonprofit organization Sandy Hook Promise, said.
After giving a brief history of the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn. in which 20 children and six adults were killed, Graham said that Sandy Hook Promise was founded by parents and community members who wanted to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future.
“At Sandy Hook Promise, we believe that all violence is preventable,” Graham said.
Graham showed the students a three-minute video about violence in schools, suicide, bullying and warning signs on social media and text messages before asking the students if they felt sad, angry or hopeless, and many of the students raised their hands.
“I have been at that hopeless point, and I’m here to give you back a little bit of that hope,” Graham said.
Using the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in her home state of Colorado, Graham highlighted several warning signs including the gunmen making violent posts on their blog, asking people to buy firearms for them and warning their friend the day before the shooting to stay away from the school.
“There had been warning signs for months and years before those boys ever picked up their guns,” Graham said.
By learning warning signs that someone may be planning to commit a violent act and reporting them to an adult, Graham said students can help prevent the violence from occurring in the first place.
“You can protect your classmates,” Graham said. “You can protect your friends.”
Graham listed three steps students can use to recognize and report warning signs of violence: Look for warning signs or threats, act immediately and take them seriously and say something to a trusted adult.
Some warning signs include major changes in personality or appearance, feelings of rejection, blaming others for their failures and withdrawing from friends or activities, Graham said, as well as feelings of isolation.
“There is such a thing as healthy alone time, but there is a point where that alone time becomes loneliness, and that loneliness may be a warning sign,” Graham said.
Graham also told the students to watch for warning signals such as bragging about access to guns, fascination with suicide or shootings, warning friends to stay away from school or events, bragging about an upcoming attack or even trying to recruit friends to join the attack.
“These are your friends, these are your classmates, so you’re going to be able to see if there’s a change in them,” Graham said.
Much like warning signs and signals, threats can also take many forms, Graham said, such as social media posts, text messages or conversations that indicate a student may plan to harm themselves or others.
Some of the reasons why someone might not report a warning sign or threat include not taking it seriously, thinking someone else will report it or even a fear of being labeled as a “tattle-tale,” Graham said, before explaining that while “tattling” on someone is done with the intention of getting someone in trouble, reporting a warning sign or threat is not.
“‘Say something’ is about potentially life-saving measures,” Graham said.
Graham also provided numerous examples of “trusted adults,” including parents or guardians, teachers or school administrators, religious or spiritual leaders, school resource officers and even cafeteria staff or school librarians.
“A trusted adult is anybody who has the knowledge and means to get people the help they need,” Graham said. “Believe it or not, your are surrounded by adults who want you to stay happy and healthy.”
When reporting a potential warning sign or threat to an adult, Graham advised the students to first gather evidence such as screenshots of text messages or social media posts, or written notes about spoken conversations.
Graham then called two student volunteers to the stage to provide examples of how to properly report a warning sign or threat to an adult.
The first student, 14-year-old Julianna Hammer, was given a scenario in which she overheard a classmate talk about beating up someone else before reporting it to Graham, who played the role of Hammer’s mother.
“I need your help now to get him some help,” Hammer said.
Hammer said the presentation helped her realize the importance of telling a trusted adult if a student may be in danger of harming others or themselves, even if doing so may cause a friend to become upset.
“You have to say something if you see something wrong, because someone’s life may be in jeopardy,” Hammer said.
In the second scenario, 14-year-old Richard Castro told Graham — playing the role of Castro’s male teacher — that a classmate told him she felt life was not worth living and that she would not be at school on Monday.
“I learned that we can prevent these events from happening, that we can all do something,” Castro said. “We need to look out for signs in our friends, and just make sure everything’s OK with them.”
Graham ended her presentation by asking the students to stand up and take a pledge to always look for warning signs or threats, always take them seriously and always tell a trusted adult.
“If we all decide to stand up and say ‘no’ to violence, we could change the world,” Graham said.
Erin Lenzi, Millswood’s principal, felt the presentation aligned closely with her two main goals of preparing her students for high school and keeping them safe.
“If we’re not safe, we’re not learning, so this was an effort to support that,” Lenzi said.
George Neely, a member of the Lodi Unified School District Board of Education, felt the assembly provided the students will vital tools to help keep their campus safe.
“You can have cameras, you can have locks, but there’s nothing like having all of these eyes and ears,” Neely said.
Jeff Palmquist, assistant superintendent of secondary education for LUSD, agreed with Neely.
“This is giving kids three practical steps to get involved in making sure their campus is safer, happier and healthier by having kids acknowledge and look for warning signs, and then take action by telling a trusted adult,” Palmquist said.