In one Texas middle school recently, three students sent tips using an anonymous reporting system after seeing disconcerting posts on social media.
“I heard that someone is going to shoot up the school tomorrow,” one person wrote. “This is serious, I think someone is bringing a gun to school Friday.” Another user submitted a message saying, “People say someone will shoot up the school tomorrow. I’m concerned.”
Then, a tip came in directly from the would-be shooter: “Glock 9 in my bag–ready to roll–good luck finding me tomorrow.”
Upon receiving these messages, a crisis counselor immediately jumped into action. A tip was quickly sent to law enforcement. Officers investigated and found the premeditated attack was a credible threat. There is no telling how many lives were saved that day.
This is just one of hundreds of stories across the nation. We wish more of them ended this way. But more recently, in just one week 34 people died in separate mass shootings. More than 60 more people are injured, some still fighting for their lives days later.
They were attending a festival, going shopping, and hanging out on a Saturday night. They range in age from two years old to 82 years old. None of their lives, or those of their families, or those of their loved ones or acquaintances, will ever be the same.
All around the country, people are wondering if their community will be next. And as the school year begins, anxious students, parents, and teachers are thinking in terms of when, not if, a shooter will attack.
This is the new normal in the United States. It’s a terrifying reality, and it makes many of us feel helpless. Beyond the victims and families it has impacted, mass shootings have triggered a new health crisis in society as we grapple not only with loss and the trauma of violence, but the constant fear of a mass shooting happening at any point, no matter where you are.
But there is actually something we can do today to avert shootings before they can happen.
Four out of five shooters tell someone close to them of their plans or post about it on social media. But all too frequently, people who observe these threats are unsure if they are real, and even if they are afraid, they don’t know who to tell or what to do. Young people in particular worry about repercussions from snitching on a peer or being accused of misinterpreting a joke for a serious threat.
We need to do a better job of making it safe for people to report instances where they suspect violence, or feel unsafe. By normalizing a system of trust along with preparedness, we do have a chance of stopping the next shooting.
I have seen these prevention programs work, first hand, as illustrated in the Texas school I mentioned earlier.
Classroom lessons for communities
I co-founded Sandy Hook Promise in 2013 with a few other families whose children were killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. Among them was my beautiful baby boy, Dylan.
Since then, we have educated over 7.5 million people—mainly students—about how to recognize and respond to common signs of someone who may be considering committing violence against others, or him or herself. In the past year, we have partnered with 152 school districts in 25 states to roll out our Say Something anonymous reporting system, the same system used to prevent the incident at the Texas school I first described.
We have helped schools identify trusted adults whom young people can confidently turn to and share their concerns about a peer, or information they find online. Our program allows people to safely share a concern by app, phone, or website. These tips are directed to appropriate school officials, law enforcement, and mental health authorities for immediate assessment and intervention, when necessary.
This system of anonymous reporting encourages people to trust others and reach out with information. It has averted numerous planned acts of violence, from school shootings to suicide.
While our primary focus is gun violence in schools, this program can be applied outside of a school setting so that people, such as community organizers and faith-based leaders, know who to turn to, and what to do, when they see someone exhibiting at-risk behaviors. We need to create a culture where we all look out for one another, beyond schools.
Here are some signs that we teach students, educators, and parents to look out for and to speak up about. These apply to anyone we interact with regularly—not just students.
- A strong fascination or obsession with firearms and/or an excessive study of firearms and mass shootings.
- Exhibiting excessive over-reactions or aggressive behavior for a seemingly minor reason can signal that someone cannot self-regulate their emotions or control their anger.
- Gestures of violence, such as aggressive body language and/or rude hand gestures.
- Low commitment or aspirations toward school, or work, or a sudden shift in performance.
- Perpetrators of self-harm or violence toward others may be victims of long-term bullying and may have real or perceived feelings of being picked on or persecuted by others.
- Extreme feelings of isolation or social withdrawal due to real or perceived actions of others can lead to further withdrawal from society.
- Unsupervised, illegal and/or easy access to firearms, or bragging about access to firearms.
- Making overt threats of violence (spoken, written, pictures, videos, gestures (aggressive body language or hand gestures).
One warning sign on its own may not mean a person is planning an act of violence. But they should all be taken seriously, especially if multiple warning signs are witnessed.
As we learn more about the young shooters in Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton, we can see the familiar thread: In different instances, we’ve read about posts on social media, their social isolation, and about being bullied. We’ve heard friends and peers talk about their lack of surprise that the young man they know might act this way.
What we need now is to empower every person who sees or hears these warning signs to say something. We need to create, and normalize, a safe space to raise concerns to people who can stop these tragedies from ever happening in the first place.
This does not have to be our “new normal.” We all need to stay vigilant and work to prevent these tragedies from happening. We all have the power. We just need to say something.