Violence education pushed in 'SAVE Students Act'

Photo by Chris Lisinski/SHNS .  Mark Barden holds up a photo of his son Daniel, who was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting six years ago, while advocating at an Education Committee hearing Tuesday for required violence and suicide prevention training in Massachusetts schools.

BOSTON – Mark Barden held up a photo of his son Daniel, who was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, for the entire Joint Committee on Education to see.

A parent who moved away from Newtown, Connecticut, shortly before the tragedy broke into tears recounting the horrors of that day.

Greg Gibson told lawmakers his son Galen, who died in the 1992 Bard College shooting, "would be alive today" if reforms they are weighing had been in place.

In personal, often emotional testimony, speakers urged lawmakers Tuesday to support a statewide school violence and suicide prevention training program, stressing that better understanding of how to recognize threats could stave off the tragedy that weighed on them for years.

"Students have the power to prevent this from happening," Barden said at a committee hearing. "They are the front lines, the eyes and ears of what their peers are talking about. They see things on social media their parents and their teachers aren't going to see. So the have a very unique perspective and vantage point on the front lines."

The legislation (H 483 / S 285), authored by Rep. Natalie Higgins and Sen. Barry Finegold and referred to as the SAVE Students Act, takes a three-pronged approach: It would require school districts to establish a threat-assessment training and response program, create an anonymous reporting system run by the state Department of Education to bring attention to possible risks in schools, and provide all middle school and high school students with evidence-based education on how to spot warning signs for violence and suicide.

Barden stressed that the focus is proactive. Almost 80 percent of school shooters and 70 percent of individuals who die by suicide give some indication of their plans to someone, he said, and with better education, students and teachers could recognize those interactions and intervene.

Many of those ideas were not as common in 1992, when Gibson's 18-year-old son was killed at Bard College. Gibson said Tuesday that several faculty members had seen a package in the school mailroom containing high-capacity magazines and ammunition on the day of the shooting and that students knew the shooter "was in some kind of crisis." But action came too late.

"I am morally certain that if those students and administrators had been exposed to safety and violence education, my son would be alive today," Gibson said. "There is something we can do right now to prevent more families from suffering what my family and many others have suffered."

Similar assessment and education programs have been launched across the country by the Sandy Hook Promise organization that Barden helped found. Attorney General Maura Healey has partnered with the group for the past year to pilot efforts in about 50 districts using a $1 million federal grant.

Healey spoke alongside Barden and half a dozen lawmakers in support of the bill at Tuesday's hearing and a subsequent press conference, arguing the Legislature should expand her office's work across the entire state.

"Too often, we're acting after violence has occurred," she said. "This is about preventing violence."

One district already working to implement the recommended trainings is Dracut, where results have been successful so far. School Committee Chair Allison Volpe told lawmakers Tuesday that requiring similar programs elsewhere is a "no-brainer."

"Our students are our first line of defense," she said. "The threats are coming from within, and our students need to be empowered to know how to deal with these types of issues and how to communicate these issues out."

Speakers noted that although Massachusetts has one of the lowest gun-death rates in the country, concerning national trends continue. Citing the K-12 School Shooting Database, Finegold said there have already been 36 school shootings this year.

Suicides — which are the majority of all gun deaths — have been increasing for years, and the rate was about a third higher in 2017 than in 1999. The impact is particularly felt among young people, with suicide the second leading cause of death for those between 10 and 34 years old.

Higgins stressed that the legislation aimed to prompt a "culture change," something Finegold echoed with an analogy about airport safety.

"Once upon a time, you could be in an airport and walk by a bag and you'd think it'd be OK to walk by it," he said. "It's no longer (OK) to walk by a student that's hurting and could be a threat to themselves or a threat to others. That's why we must act now."