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Compassion in action

Can SEL help combat school violence? A mother who lost her son to a school shooting says yes.

3 min read


Compassion in action

Photo credit: Boden Haber

Thousands of students and advocates turned out to rally against gun violence at March for Our Lives protests across the country on March 24, 2018. These demonstrations were organized in response to the tragic school shooting in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 lives were lost and many more were changed forever.

Another school shooting on Dec. 14, 2012 forever changed the life of Scarlett Lewis, mother of six-year-old Jesse who was among those killed that day at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. As the debate over guns and school safety focuses on external fixes to the problem, Lewis is taking a different path, one that examines the internal causes for violence in our schools today. Lewis presented her insights, plus a “proactive, preventative” approach for taking action, at ASCD Empower18. 

One way to help combat school violence is by equipping students with social and emotional learning skills and tools, said Lewis. Her free Choose Love Enrichment Program focuses on teaching students SEL skills such as self-awareness, self-management and responsible decision-making. These skills have been linked to better academic performance and success in career and life, Lewis said, and can help prevent issues such as mental illness, anxiety, trauma, bullying and, ultimately, violence. “Kids that are connected, that can have positive relationships, that can manage their emotions, that are resilient, they do not want to hurt other kids,” she said

After learning more about the life of the shooter in Jesse’s murder, 20-year old Adam Lanza, Lewis said she now believes that Lanza exhibited behavior and shared thoughts that should have raised red flags indicating he needed help. “He was overlooked,” she said. She believes if Lanza had had the tools and the environment he needed to manage the thoughts and feelings he had been experiencing, the tragedy at Sandy Hook would not have happened. “It is easier for me to be angry for him than it is to be at him,” she explained.

In addition to these SEL skills, the notion of choosing love is central to the program’s message. This idea began with the words “nurturing, healing, love,” Lewis explained, which she found written on a kitchen chalkboard in Jesse’s six-year-old handwriting after he died. She underscored the importance of these behaviors and empowering students – and all individuals — to choose loving thoughts over angry thoughts. 

“Nurturing means loving kindness and gratitude. Healing is literally forgiveness. And love is compassion in action. Practicing those in that order is choosing love,” Lewis said.

Katharine Haber is an editor for SmartBrief Education.


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