“Daddy, how do we know who the bad people are?” This was the question my then 11-year-old daughter Natalie asked me as I was tucking her into bed. This was January 2013. Another parent might have found the question random, or even normal. I struggled for an answer. I knew I couldn’t comfort her with the standard reassurances. She had every right in the world to be concerned, even terrified.
At the time, Natalie was still trying to come to terms with the unthinkable reality that, a few weeks prior, a young man who lived just over a mile away from us in Newtown, Connecticut, had shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School and murdered her beloved little brother Daniel in his first-grade classroom, along with 19 other children and six adult educators.
Even now, six years since the horrors of December 14, 2012, Natalie’s question sticks with me: How do we know who the “bad” people are? Does bad behavior mean that someone is bad? Are some individuals who behave badly just good people who have been overlooked, isolated from their peers, experienced societal disadvantages, all of which can lead to an overwhelming lack of well-being? This is a question mankind has wrestled with for hundreds of years. And, as the father of a shooting victim and as the co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise, a gun violence prevention nonprofit, it is a question I face every day.
If we are defined by our actions, then the person that shot and killed 26 innocent people in our son’s school is the incarnation of pure evil, plain and simple. Except I’m not buying it. I am convinced that what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary that cold morning was the culmination of years of bad choices, negligence, and overlooked signs, such as social isolation and a fascination with mass violence.
What I’ve discovered is that asking who is fundamentally bad doesn’t do much good. It’s much more important to focus on what you can see, what you can prevent, and those things that empower students — the eyes and ears of their schools — to look for warning signs.
Consider that in four out of five school shootings, the attacker told someone of his or her plans prior to the attack and that 70 percent of people who commit suicide told someone of their intention or gave some type of warning. Students are often told to say something if they see something, but often students don’t know what to look for. That is why, at Sandy Hook Promise, we emphasize teaching them how to spot the warning signs — especially on social media — so they can tell a trusted adult.
I have studied the signs of at-risk behaviors that, if left unchecked, can eventually lead to a range of issues including violent, destructive behavior. At SHP, we have made it our mission to train students, as well as adults, how to identify the signs of at-risk behaviors and how to assess, intervene, and get help for that individual before they harm themselves or others. These warning signs include behaviors like expressing a strong fascination with firearms or an excessive study of firearms and mass shootings; being overly aggressive, displaying a lack of self-control, changing behaviors abruptly. We teach kids to identify peers who face consistent social isolation or who suddenly withdraw from other people and activities. By teaching our young people to notice one another and by training them through our programs like Start With Hello to connect with each other, we help students work towards a culture of awareness.
Asking whether a shooter is good or bad doesn’t produce worthy answers and I don’t want any other parents to have to deeply consider the question. By empowering our children with simple, human-centered tools, we can teach our children and ourselves to ask a better question: How do we keep each other safe?