ST. PETERSBURG — Mark Barden held up a photo for the ninth-graders packed into Northeast High School's auditorium Thursday morning.
It showed his 7-year-old son, Daniel, who was killed during the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting six years ago. The boy is grinning, holding a stuffed bear.
And now he's part of the inspiration behind Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit group started by Barden and other Sandy Hook parents aimed at preventing gun violence by building a stronger sense of community in schools.
After Pinellas County Schools decided last year to bring the organization's programs to its middle and high schools, Northeast High started a speed dating-like event for lunch buddies to make sure no one eats alone. The students swap friendship bracelets.
Barden said he was overwhelmed when he heard what they were doing.
"You're helping people. You're literally saving lives," he told the students Thursday.
"I'm proud of you," he said. "Daniel is proud of you."
PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Pinellas to enlist Sandy Hook group in its quest for safer schools
The gathering attracted a who's who of local officials to join the students in welcoming Barden, a co-founder and managing director of Sandy Hook Promise.
The group's "Start with Hello" program encourages students to be more inclusive by minimizing social isolation among their peers, while its "Say Something" initiative teaches them to recognize signs, especially in social media, of kids who may be a threat to themselves or others. It also urges students to tell an adult or use an anonymous online reporting system monitored by Sandy Hook Promise staff.
Barden came during Northeast High's "Call-to-Action Week," part of the Say Something initiative. The visit, which he called it "tremendously personal," included a moment after his presentation when several students approached to give him hugs.
In an interview, Barden said Daniel had always been jokingly referred to as "the caretaker of all living things." The boy would sit by classmates who were alone or hold the door open for adults.
The dad recounted how Sandy Hook Promise started as families tried to make sense of the unspeakable sadness that followed them in the weeks and months after the tragedy.
"It will never, ever, ever go away," Barden said. "It rewires you completely and I'll have to continue to manage this grief. I feel a tremendous need and responsibility to honor (Daniel).
Sandy Hook Promise, he said, began as "a kernel of an idea of how can we prevent this from happening again."
Reginald Richardson, of Sandy Hook Promise, urged the Northeast students to look for early warning signs among their peers by paying closer attention to social media. Some signs might be direct comments or threats, but others could be more subtle, like someone giving away possessions or being fascinated by suicides or tragedies.
The next step, he said, is telling a trusted adult.
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"There's a big difference between snitching something and saying something," Richardson said.
For students who don't have an adult they feel comfortable talking to, the Say Something program allows students to report by text to 1-844-5-SAYNOW, saysomething.net or the Say Something app anonymously. The reports go directly to a crisis counselor, who will forward the information back to school officials or law enforcement if necessary.
The program, Barden said, has seen tangible results after having trained 5.5 million people across the country.
"There are little towns that no one would know the names of because a horrible mass casualty didn't happen there," he said.
In Ohio, one anonymous tip led to the arrest of someone with plans to execute a mass shooting, he said. Other times, reports have made adults aware of people being bullied or who were cutting themselves or had eating disorders.
"When we were introduced to the concept of Sandy Hook Promise, it not only meant we could have an avenue by which we could assist our students when it comes to safety and security, but it provided us with an avenue by which students can assist students," said School Board chairwoman Rene Flowers. "It's that student that is sitting by themselves for lunch that you get an opportunity to meet who could turn out to be a wonderful kindred spirit. But more importantly it's an opportunity that if you see something, you say something."
Northeast High principal Michael Hernandez, who sported a red friendship bracelet from the swap on his wrist, said the initiative has made students more comfortable about reporting things they see.
Those who came to hear Barden were not much older than Daniel when the Sandy Hook shooting occurred.
Amina Pazara, 14, said she thinks the program will encourage people to come forward if they see warning signs.
"It helps," she said. "Some people are scared, you know?"
Barden said he hopes students are aware of the difference their small acts of kindness might be making.
"If I could turn back time and prevent the events that led to the creation of this organization, I would, but I can't," he said. "It's hard to conceptualize what didn't happen because of a simple act. In that process, we're building a more connective and more communicative culture."
Contact Divya Kumar at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @divyadivyadivya.