When I Lost my Son at Sandy Hook, We Didn't Know the Warning Signs for a Mass Shooting. We Do Now | Opinion

I remember the first time I met Dylan's first grade teacher. It was Parents Night and all the adults were in the classroom, trying to fit our knees under the tiny desks we were sitting at. The room was cheery and colorful, and the teacher had a warm personality and a friendly smile. I remember listening attentively with the other parents, most of whom I didn't know, while my son's new teacher talked about all the exciting things our children were going learn and experience this year in first grade.

There was no discussion about our kids being involved in a school shooting in a few months. I wasn't prepared for my son's experience of being shot to death alongside many of his classmates and teachers in the same classroom I was now sitting in at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Since that tragedy almost seven years ago, increased school security, lockdowns, and active shooter drills have become standard parts of the back-to-school education. It's the "new normal" for students... but I wonder how many parents really understand the stark contrast between what they hope or expect their children's school experience will be, compared to what it is actually like? How many parents have been part of a Code Red drill? Do parents know that we are traumatizing our children by training them to expect violence and practice what to do when it happens?

More importantly, are parents aware that school shootings and violence are preventable?

Even with increased security measures and practices, gun violence in schools is increasing, with 2018 having the highest number of incidents in recorded history. I understand the need for methods like lockdowns. But it's obvious that they aren't enough to stop violence from happening.

What is essential for school safety—and what has proven to work countless times—is prevention.

After Dylan's murder, I helped launch Sandy Hook Promise with a vision of a future where no student experiences the devastating effects of school shooting. Our mission is to create a culture engaged in preventing shootings, violence, and other harmful acts in schools. We do this by training schools, at no cost, how to recognize signs that precede acts of violence and self-harm and take action to get help to prevent them from ever happening.

This work is driven by the research and experiences of the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, law enforcement, and threat assessment professionals, psychologists, and sociologists. All of which point to one common fact: 87 percent of school shooters give warning signs and threats, in one way or another. This means we all have the power to prevent mass shootings from happening. We just need to know the signs to take seriously and have the courage to say something and we can avert tragedies like the one that took my beautiful butterfly, Dylan, that cold December morning—and nearly 3,000 other kids each year since.

I know prevention works. I hear stories of lives being saved in schools almost every week. Recently, there was one Texas middle school where kids were seeing images of guns and overt threats being posted by a classmate on social media. Scared to go to school, students knew they had to say something. Several sent in the posts to our anonymous reporting system. Our crisis counselor immediately jumped into action, sending this life-safety tip immediately to law enforcement, who investigated and found the premeditated attack was a credible threat. The school team was alerted, kick-starting the practiced rapid response protocols, an intervention was made, and a tragedy was averted. We don't hear as much about the stories where tragedies were prevented, and, so, the national conversation on school shootings remains reactive rather than on the proactive solutions proven to work.

We must stop trying to bandage our gaping school shooting wounds with Band-Aid solutions. We terrorize our children with drills designed for combat scenarios, spend millions to install metal detectors and bulletproof glass, debate giving teachers guns, and think that a bulletproof backpack is what our kids need to stay safe. We then spend millions more to repair the physical and emotional trauma suffered from school shootings, individually and collectively.

Let us, instead, focus on preventing these wounds from ever opening up in the first place.

Gun violence is now the second leading cause of death for kids under 19 in this country. By teaching our youth to look out for one another and speak up when they suspect someone is in crisis, we can effectively reverse the trends of school shootings plaguing our nation. Our "new normal" could instead revert to being "normal," where going back to school is a time full of excitement and possibility—not fear and angst.

Nicole Hockley is the co-founder and managing director of Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching youth and adults nationwide to "know the signs" to prevent school shootings, violence, and other harmful acts in schools.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​