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Lessons from Sandy Hook: Pinellas schools show their 'human side' to prevent tragedy

The entire student body at Frontier Elementary School in Largo lined up on the physical education field to spell the word "Hello" on Monday, Sept. 24. The event was part of the Pinellas County school district's "Start with Hello" week, sponsored by nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise. [Courtesy of Pinellas County school district]
Published Oct. 3, 2018

LARGO — About 600 students shuffled onto the physical education field at Frontier Elementary School last week, organizing themselves to spell the word "Hello" for an aerial photo. It didn't take long for a couple third-graders to understand the message behind the exercise.

"A girl in our class … She was sitting alone, so we went over to her," Kei-moni Stokes, 8, recalled a few days later from his seat in the lunchroom. "We said 'Are you okay? What's wrong?' She said 'I don't have nobody to sit with.'"

So he and his cousin, Jahmyr Faulk, 8, sat down, and "she just had a big smile," Jahmyr said between bites of chicken nuggets. "We want to make people feel happy."

While others debate gun control, school security and the many logistics of keeping schools safe after this year's shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, Pinellas County is coming at the problem from a different angle.

The district is working to improve the emotional climate in schools with the help of Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit founded by family members of those who died in the 2012 elementary school shooting in Connecticut. The strategy, put simply, is to encourage students to care more about each other, and to be aware enough to recognize when a classmate is troubled.

RELATED: How do you explain active shooters to a first-grader? For educators, school safety is a 'work in progress.'

Curriculum offered by the organization "supports the culture and climate in our schools that we are trying to create," said Donna Sicilian, head of student services for the school district. "Their passion for their mission is very attractive, and it lines up with our mission here."

She said she met with representatives from Sandy Hook Promise on Feb. 13, a day before the shooting at Stoneman Douglas. The district had already been planning on a partnership, she said, and a tragedy so close to home only amplified the need for added student supports.

Now, along with active shooter trainings newly mandated by the state, Pinellas students are being introduced to the "human side" of school safety, said Blair Freedman, who oversees Sandy Hook Promise operations in 14 Florida school districts. "We're looking at how we can harden and build immunity (against threats in schools) by building wellness."

The nonprofit will deliver its "See Something, Say Something" program early next year to teach kids the importance of speaking up when they hear or see something suspicious on campus — or online. By January, schools will roll out the Sandy Hook Promise anonymous reporting app, which students and their families can use to inform school officials and law enforcement of possible threats.

For now, however, educators are laying a foundation focused on kindness through a curriculum titled "Start with Hello." It's aimed at encouraging kids to be thoughtful participants at school, always making sure no one feels alone, said Valerie Santos, a school counselor at Madeira Beach Fundamental K-8.

"In many of the (shootings) that have happened, I don't think (the shooter) felt loved or like they were part of a community," she said. "This program is something we can do to change that, so that hopefully something like that doesn't happen at our school."

The program, offered at no cost to the district, eventually will reach all Pinellas public schools in one form or another.

Santos helped organize a "You Matter" event during lunch one day last week at Madeira Beach Fundamental. Kids were supplied sticky notes, and principal Chris Ateek asked them to write about someone who "lifts you up." The notes were placed on posters to be hung on the cafeteria walls.

"We want to instill in them that we are a family here, and one of the ways to build that family is to constantly tell and show people that they matter," said school counselor Kristin Vermillion. "These are little things that they might not even realize, but they will add up."

Some of the students' notes were general:

Someone always loves you whether you know it or not.

You are different, and that's beautiful.

You are important.

Others, like one 12-year-old Aubrey Pharo wrote about her best friend, Adriana, were more specific.

"She's been there for me since second grade," Pharo said. "She always takes up for me and has my back."

At Frontier Elementary, fifth-grader Sam Brodosi, 11, said it was "kind of weird at first" to say hello to people outside of his friend group. But now he's finding himself on the lookout for lonely classmates so he can invite them to play.

"We don't want anyone to feel left out, because if they feel left out, then they don't feel like doing anything and they feel forgotten," chimed in Moses Wildman, 10, from his seat in the lunchroom. "We don't want anyone to feel forgotten."

Clubs and student groups at each school have been asked to boost Sandy Hook Promise practices through events and activities through the school year. The organization will be there to help, Freedman said, but it's up to students and staff to "embed the message" into their school's existing culture.

Savannah Taylor and Reanna Stiehler, both seniors at Dixie Hollins High in St. Petersburg, said they know convincing high school students to adopt the Sandy Hook Promise ideology could be difficult.

"There is that push-back that maybe these things aren't cool, or the standard for how teenagers think they're supposed to be," Stiehler said. "But we hope it will breed more communication … that could prevent a violent situation from occurring here."

The best selling point, Taylor added, is that Sandy Hook Promise lets students take ownership of safety at their school, like students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas have through rallies, speeches and visits with public officials.

"A lot of the security methods we've been seeing … are well and good, but it's what the adults are doing," she said. "This is what the kids can do."

And that's exactly what Sandy Hook Promise senior trainer Dalhia Perryman told a couple hundred sophomores during a presentation in the school's auditorium last week:

"You may take for granted that you can actually change things at your age … But you all have more power than you know," she said. "You are the ones to change this culture. You all are the change-makers."

Contact Megan Reeves at mreeves@tampabay.com. Follow @mareevs.

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