Sandy Hook: Nearly a year on, groups seek positive legacy from tragedy

Sandy Hook Promise, based in Newtown, Conn., has announced a new campaign called Parent Together – designed to empower parents and local communities to address causes of gun violence.

Michelle McLoughlin/Reuters
Stars are seen on a tree in front of the gates leading to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., October 24, 2013. As the one-year anniversary of the Dec. 14 mass shooting at Sandy Hook approaches, a new grassroots campaign designed to empower parents and local communities to address causes of gun violence was announced Thursday.

As the one-year anniversary of the Dec. 14 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School approaches, new channels are emerging for people to mark it in constructive ways. Lessons for schoolkids, grass-roots actions to prevent violence, local acts of service, and vigils for gun-violence victims are just some of the ways people will be reflecting on that devastating event.

The group Sandy Hook Promise, based in Newtown, Conn., announced Thursday a new grassroots campaign called Parent Together – designed to empower parents and local communities to address causes of gun violence such as mental-health issues and social connectedness for young people.

“Unfortunately, all of the debate keeps focusing on just the guns – it’s always about gun control or gun freedoms, and it’s become a very polarized and political debate, rather than a conversation,” says Nicole Hockley, who lost her son Dylan in the shooting and is one of the Sandy Hook Promise organizers.

In hundreds of conversations with parents and people on both sides of the gun debate around the country, Ms. Hockley says, the message that came back about preventing gun violence was largely, “We don’t want legislation to tell us what to do, we want to be given the tools to be able to do it ourselves in our own communities.”

It’s not that her group hasn’t supported certain gun-control laws and lobbied to improve mental-health treatment, but the Parent Together campaign will begin rolling out tools early next year to spread models that have been effective in some communities – on everything from how to have a conversation with your child about gun safety to ways that pediatricians can detect and address mental-health challenges earlier, Hockley says.

So far, nearly 260,000 people have signed on to the website’s “promise” to have open conversations about reducing violence, and the hope is to reach 500,000 by Dec. 14 and continue to grow from there, Hockley says. Like campaigns to reduce drunk driving or increase recycling, she says, the conversations can grow organically into action.

For Hockley, it’s very personal work. She wants to spare as many parents as possible what she’s been through. “It’s also my way of helping keep Dylan alive in many respects, because this is a legacy that I want to give him,” she says. “He was 6 when he died, so I’ll never know what sort of person he could have been. But if his name and his beautiful face can be associated with some sort of movement and positive change that helps save the lives of others, that’s what keeps me going.”

Children also have a way to lend their voices to the conversation through a new anti-violence lesson plan.

Back in January, when Sandy Hook students returned to class in a neighboring building, they were greeted with painted handprints from Connecticut children showing solidarity.

Now, cut-out handprints are at the center of the “Hand of Hope for Sandy Hook” lesson plans. They were developed jointly by Hockley, former US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and award-winning teacher Jessica Lura from Los Altos, Calif.

Available on the website, the lessons are designed to help students in grades 4 through 12 discuss the Sandy Hook tragedy and how people have tried to make schools safer in its wake. They culminate in students writing on their cut-out hands two statements – one starting with “I hope” and expressing how they want the country to be safer, and another stating one thing they will do to make the country better for everyone.

Students will upload photographs of their “hands of hope” to the website, and organizers want to receive at least 1,000 submissions before the anniversary to compile a digital collage.

“Stopping gun violence takes courage and new ideas,” said a statement about the project by Ms. Giffords on the website of Americans for Responsible Solutions, the organization that she founded with her husband to reduce gun violence after she survived a 2011 shooting. “We are proud to bring students together to honor the lives lost in the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, and encourage them to envision an America that is both free and safe.”

Another group, the Newtown Action Alliance, which focuses on gun-control laws, is organizing a national vigil in Washington on Dec. 12 to remember approximately 30,000 people killed in gun violence each year in the US.

For their part, Newtown leaders have said there will not be a town-wide event to mark the anniversary.

“Our community is choosing to remember and honor those who lost their lives in that awful tragedy in ways that are quiet, personal, and respectful – centered on the themes of kindness, love, and service to others,” wrote Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra in a statement joined by local schools, churches, and civic groups. “In Newtown, we are encouraging every resident, young and old, to use the weeks leading up to this anniversary as a time to formally commit to acts of service and kindness…. [T]here is no greater gift of love than to act on behalf of those whose lives were taken.”

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