By Joe Mathieu and Craig LeMoult, Morning Edition | October 31, 2019
Students in 50 school districts across the state are learning about mental health and violence prevention through a program run by the organization Sandy Hook Promise. The group was started by families in Newtown, Connecticut after the school shooting there in 2012, and Attorney General Maura Healey recently brought the program to Massachusetts.
Healey and Sandy Hook Promise Co-founder Mark Barden visited one of those schools on Wednesday. As about 20 students from Garfield Middle School in Revere learned about the program, they shared their concerns about gun violence in schools and talked about how they might prevent future incidents by reaching out to socially isolated students.
WGBH News reporter Craig LeMoult visited with students at Garfield Middle School in Revere, where the program is being implemented. And WGBH Morning Edition Host Joe Mathieu spoke with Healey and Barden about their school visits and the initiatives they are launching in schools across the state. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: It’s special to have the two of you here; I know that you have worked together for quite some time. Could you speak with us, Attorney General, about what these mean? There are three different programs: “Start With Hello,” “Say Something” and “Signs of Suicide.”
Attorney General Maura Healey: Let me just say this at the outset — gun violence and violence generally in this country, we need to recognize it as a public health issue. And this program, we like it so much because it really meets kids where they are. It has the three components, and the first component, “Start With Hello,” is very basic. How do you get at the kid who’s left alone at the lunch table, or the kid who’s being bullied or the kid who’s feeling isolated? Because the effect of that on that young person — and even on those who may be part of perpetrating isolation — is profound and has lasting impact. And so “Start With Hello” is really simple. It talks about sort of just saying hello to one another, extending compliments. There are schools that will do things like take photographs with one another and just build ways to build inclusivity and connectivity between and among students. Because we’ve got to do everything we can to inspire and foster those kinds of environments.
Mathieu: Mark, talked to me about the reaction. I’m assuming that it’s different depending on who you’re talking to, who the child is and where they’re from. But for you this is deeply personal, no matter who you’re talking to.
Mark Barden: Yeah, that’s true. This is deeply personal for me. I lost my 7-year-old son, Daniel, in the Sandy Hook school shooting. Everything that we do with Sandy Hook Promise has a nexus back to that. And the “Start With Hello” program is a particularly personal one for me because we used to love hearing teachers at parent-teacher conferences tell us that Daniel was the kid who would reach out to somebody who was sitting alone or even having a hard day, and would grow concerned for that individual and want to connect with them. So a lot of what we do with these programs kind of speaks to that kind of empathy and compassion.
Mathieu: You’re dealing with in-person communications all the time, or are there programs that are online or other literature that students are reading?
Healey: It in part allows the students and teachers to make it their own. One of the things it does is it does focus on direct, face-to-face interaction. I think in this age of social media we’ve lost some of that as a society, and I think putting kids together in rooms [and] talking to one another is really powerful and really important to build that emotional connection and to build that empathy. But also it addresses the impact of social media and how young people engage with one another online, because we know that that is the way that most kids are communicating these days.
Mathieu: So could I ask both of you to talk to me about what it’s like when you’re talking with these students?
Healey: One of the things that struck me was the willingness of these students to say, ‘Hey, I’ve experienced social isolation, I’ve felt pain, I’ve felt hurt. I’ve felt depression.’ For them to acknowledge it and to also acknowledge that they would have appreciated resources.
Barden: That had such a deep impact on me, to listen to those incredible stories from those kids, who were just so deeply engaged. And we’re sharing the impact that the “Start With Hello” program that was having with them. I mean, we have a growing database of stories of kids who have intervened on suicides and have protected their peers from all kinds of harmful acts, including mass casualty events.
Healey: You see students today who are willing to speak up, who are willing to march, who are willing to protest, who are willing to demand accountability from their government and leaders. And it seems to me that our job in this time is to deliver them the resources that they’re asking for. If we impact the course of one person’s trajectory, that to me is what this is about.
LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW FROM WGBH