LITHIA — Like most, Jessica Coffman watched in horror on Feb. 14 as reports of another school shooting began to unfold.
But this time, it was a little too close to home.
As Nikolas Cruz allegedly shot and killed 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Coffman’s nephew sat in class at nearby Westglades Middle School. Billy Coffman heard the first shots and saw the bloody aftermath as law enforcement used his school as a command center during the crisis.
It would take four grueling hours, as communication channels were sporadically jammed, before his extended family knew for sure that he was unharmed.
"He saw and experienced too much," said Coffman, a mother of four. "He, like many others there that day are having a very hard time processing it all."
Enough was enough. The mother, like so many throughout Florida and the country, decided to take action. She and mothers Tessa Fullerton and Jennifer Misnik teamed up to form the Coalition for School Safety Inc., a nonprofit aimed at raising funds for school safety equipment and heightening security measures within public schools.
"All of us were impacted with friends and family that were directly impacted in that tragedy," said Misnik, a mother of three. The mothers decided they had to do something. They brainstormed. They researched. They developed ideas through news articles and public safety organizations. They charged forward despite their small ranks.
Newsome High School is the group’s first project. The school will hold its first Start with Hello Week Sept. 24-28 with the help of the Coalition for School Safety. Start with Hello Week is a project of the Sandy Hook Promise, a national nonprofit aimed at honoring victims of gun violence by providing programs and practices that offer protection. The program is free for schools and educators can download its curriculum online.
During Start with Hello Week, students are taught different methods of inclusion that allow them to reach out to other students who may be dealing with social isolation.
Newsome High School psychologist Shelli Bauer welcomed the project with open arms as she had been working to implement Start with Hello Week for a year.
Bauer was one of several crisis counselors sent to Parkland after the shooting. She didn’t understand how the tragedy affected her until she returned home and realized "that could easily have been Newsome."
"I have been impacted by the number of school violence incidents having been in education, specifically high schools, for 26 years," Bauer said. "We need to reach out to all of our parents and community partners in order to take on school violence."
The Hillsborough County School District announced an introduction of Start with Hello Week to students and educators last February. School officials at the time said they hoped to expand the program into other schools within the next few months.
Bauer said the coalition, along with the school’s parent teacher association, "jumped on board immediately" with Start with Hello Week by volunteering their time and supplies. The group even went out within the community to promote the program to local businesses willing to offer monetary or in-kind donations.
In addition to Start with Hello Week, the coalition was able to identify security priorities for Newsome such as additional security cameras and public address speakers and classroom window coverings. It estimates it will cost about $100,000 to put these measures in place.
"We have had the most wonderful interaction with our local school system," Fullerton said. "They’ve willingly opened their doors to us … The local high school principal Carla Bruning sees all of these children as her own children."
The coalition is quick to point out that there are no politics involved in its mission. It’s only about keeping children safe at school.
"We believe that everybody with every political mindset can be an asset," said Fullerton, a mother of two.
For now, the women meet in each other’s homes, coffee shops, libraries or simply get in on a conference call to continue planning. But the coalition is growing. It recently launched its official web site and research is underway on how to obtain grants to help Hillsborough County schools. And, the women are always looking for other parents to join their ranks.
The ultimate goal for the coalition is to have early intervention and safety programs upgraded or in place in all schools. For now, the group is focusing on getting their local elementary schools to take on the Start with Hello Week program.
"If we’re able to get them talking about this in elementary school, then maybe by the time they reach high school, things will be different. Maybe we can change a generation," she said.
For more information or to donate to the Coalition for School Safety, visit coalitionforschoolsafety.com.
Contact Crystal Owens at [email protected]