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Sandy Hook Promise Leads CHCCS Trainings

In her previous position with Guilford County Schools in 2017, Dr. Charlos Banks attended an “Educating the Whole Child” conference, where she first met a representative from the non-profit, Sandy Hook Promise. A few months following this opportunity, the Parkland shootings occurred, and Banks knew she needed to do even more to focus her work on safe and inclusive schools. As she learned about Sandy Hook Promise and their extensive anti-violence school trainings, she brought a heightened commitment to partner with the national organization in her new position as senior executive director of student services at Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. “There’s so much that district staff and student services can do to be more preventive and proactive to keep our children safe,” Banks said. “It’s all about building trust and relationships with kids.”

On Monday, October 22, a Sandy Hook Promise (SHP) trainer arrived from Los Angeles to conduct two overflowing sessions to CHCCS social workers, counselors, nurses and other support staff. Brandon Rainey led the trainings of the two workshops, Start with Hello and Say Something. He began the presentation by throwing out stark statistics on national youth violence and suicides. In four out of five school shootings, at least one other person had knowledge of the attacker's plan but failed to report it. Most mass shootings are planned for more than six months, and in nearly every documented case, warning signs are evident but not acted upon or shared with adults who could help. Seventy percent of people who commit suicide mention their plans in advance or exhibit other warning signs.

Rainey emphasized throughout the trainings that much of the content in the educational programs targets strategies for making schools and communities more connected and inclusive. He asked the district staff several times, “How can we be the Lifeguards on Duty?” And then he carefully outlined the steps to becoming those lifeguards, especially as they can be shared with our students: Know the Signs, Take Them Seriously, and Talk to a Trusted Adult.

Banks strongly embraces the importance of changing our schools’ culture and climate. “The important thing is building trust so that children believe that adults will do something,” she said. She noted that resources like the SHP trainings can’t be “one-hit wonders,” but must become part of the ongoing work to create momentum that permeates each school. “We need to keep our focus on the inclusion piece.”

Sandy Hook Promise is not new to the district. Jim Wise, the student assistance program specialist at Chapel Hill High School, has been a leader in the national S.A.V.E. (Students Against Violence Everywhere) program for nearly 20 years. The Sandy Hook team integrated with S.A.V.E. in 2017 to become SAVE Promise clubs in schools across the county. Now Wise and other school support staff have access to the wealth of education materials and planning guides provided by SHP. “It's so important to have student input and student voices as part of our safe schools plans,” Wise said. “When students are having input and taking ownership of what happens in our schools, we are all better off for it.” Currently, two CHCCS high school students, Jesus Peralta Porras of East Chapel Hill and Claire Heinly of CHHS, serve on the national advisory board, and they, along with Wise, attended a four day Sandy Hook Promise workshop in Connecticut last summer.

Wednesday, October 24, was National SAVE Day this year; the date is always chosen for the middle of National Safe Schools Week. At East, the SAVE Promise club organized a lemonade stand. School social worker and club adviser Shari Coveney said, “We had students paint their hands on a poster, to ‘Join Hands in Stopping School Violence.’ Then they wrote a positive message and to put in a cup and then took another cup with a message to get their lemonade.” At Chapel Hill High, the SAVE Promise club conducted a seat belt check bingo game as students were leaving school at the end of the day. In September, the CHHS club created a kindness chain to celebrate Start with Hello week.

Take the Pledge poster at MES Banks said that the SAVE Promise clubs provide a key support to keep focus on the inclusion piece of Safe Schools initiatives. She is eager to expand student participation in this conversation, as well as bring parents to the table. She believes this must be a full community effort toward building safe and inclusive learning environments. “We need to show students the importance of social-emotional learning,” she said. At the end of the October 22nd trainings, support staff were charged with the goal of ensuring that every CHCCS school will train existing student groups, using the Sandy Hook Promise resources. Community Schools is developing an extensive plan to incorporate Start with Hello into the after-school programs.

That inclusion piece forms the backbone of the Sandy Hook Promise trainings. Rainey repeatedly reminded the participating CHCCS staff that too many students feel invisible. “We have students who are screaming for help. In the waters of life, they’re asking, Is there anyone who sees me, hears me?” He paused in his presentation and looked out at his audience. “Ask yourselves, if not me, then who? How can I be that Lifeguard on Duty?”

 More than three million people have officially taken the Sandy Hook pledge: “I promise to do all I can to protect children from gun violence by encouraging and supporting solutions that create safer, healthier homes, schools and communities.” Nearly four million students, educators, parents and community leaders have participated in at least one of the Sandy Hook Promise trainings.