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Pinellas to enlist Sandy Hook group in its quest for safer schools

By Donna Winchester, Times Correspondent
Published: April 19, 2018
A small remembrance of the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary is nailed to a utility pole in Newtown, Conn. In the wake of another school shooting in Parkland, Fla., the Pinellas County school system is working with the nonprofit group Sandy Hook Promise, which was formed by Sandy Hook parents to help prevent violence in schools. The School Board is expected to approve a plan to introdice the group's programs in Pinellas schools. [New York Times (2017)]

LARGO ó Starting soon, Pinellas County public schools could be using a nationwide violence prevention program founded by families of those killed during the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in December 2012.

The nonprofit group Sandy Hook Promise, with support from the districtís student services office, plans to roll out its "Know the Signs" curriculum to Pinellas middle and high school students and staff as early as May, pending School Board approval next week.

Board members on Tuesday heard an hour-long presentation from Sandy Hook Promise founder and managing partner Tim Makris, who explained how he and several other Sandy Hook parents left their jobs within days of the shooting to launch the group aimed at teaching students how to identify at-risk behaviors in their classmates and then report the signs to an adult, at no charge to school districts.

"There were five of us who said, ĎWe need to do something,í " Makris told board members. "We decided to focus on what we call the human side of gun violence by creating programs that help school communities."

District officials are particularly interested in two components of Sandy Hook Promise.

One, called "Start with Hello," teaches students to be more inclusive by minimizing social isolation among their peers. The other, "Say Something," teaches them to recognize signs, especially in social media, of individuals who may be a threat to themselves or others and then tell an adult or use an anonymous online reporting system monitored by Sandy Hook Promise staff to communicate their concerns.

Donna Sicilian, the districtís executive director of student services, told the board that her office has long recognized the importance of engaging students in noticing signs of potential violence in their classmates.

"We know we have to do a better job training our students on the symptoms," Sicilian said. "Itís not always the kids who are on our radar."

Board members responded enthusiastically.

Board chairwoman Rene Flowers said she liked the programís pledge to bring in its own trainers and its plan to embed a full-time program coordinator in Sicilianís office.

Board member Peggy OíShea applauded the programís preventative aspect, while board member Carol Cook observed that Sandy Hook Promise "would hit us where we need to be looking."

The programís track record also impressed board members.

Since its 2014 debut in Ohio, Sandy Hook Promise has trained more than 3.5 million students and staff in more than 7,000 schools, focusing on 25 states, including Florida. Within those states, organizers are homing in on cities ó and school districts ó with higher-than-average rates of violent crime.

Districts in all 50 states have adopted components of the curriculum, with Hillsborough County Public Schools being one of the most recent.

But itís about more than numbers, Makris said, attributing the halt of a school bombing, several shooting threats and multiple suicide attempts to the program.

Based in part on an aggressive timeline accomplished in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which fully embraced Sandy Hook Promise two years ago, Makris expects initial training in Pinellas to be completed in as little as two weeks. But, he stressed, the success of the program depends on follow-through.

School districts that benefit the most implement all aspects of Sandy Hook Promise, including the Say Something anonymous reporting system, Makris said. They also identify "adult champions" at each school and launch Students Against Violence Everywhere clubs.

"All of our programs require a commitment on the part of the district, recorded in a formal memorandum of understanding," Makris said. "We do have a responsibility to the donors who cover our costs."

Those costs are substantial, initially running as high as 92 cents per program per student, with an additional 50 to 60 cents per student to sustain efforts over a suggested three-year run. The expense is underwritten by state and federal grants, donations from foundations, fundraising events and grassroots supporters who contribute an average of $41 per year, Makris said.

Despite the expense, itís impossible to put a price on a childís safety, he said, adding that the organizationís aim is, and always will be, minimizing the likelihood of another Sandy Hook ó or another Parkland.