Interview: Two Texas Middle Schoolers on Ending Gun Violence, Seeing the Signs
On Sunday, Devin Patrick Kelley, a 26-year-old man dressed in all black attire, wearing a bulletproof vest, and armed with an assault rifle, initiated a shooting spree inside the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Tragically, this act of violence claimed the lives of 26 individuals, ranging in age from 17 months to 77 years.
Further investigation revealed that Kelley had previously escaped from a psychiatric hospital in 2012, while serving in the Air Force. During his time in the military, he had made death threats against his superiors, attempted to smuggle weapons onto the base, and was charged in a military court for assaulting his wife and stepson.
In contrast to the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, where authorities are still struggling to determine a motive or interpret the shooter’s behavior, there were earlier indications of Kelley’s mental instability, violent tendencies, and desire to obtain weapons. Recent evidence suggests that he displayed an interest in mass killings on social media and harbored a longstanding grudge against his mother-in-law.
In a town located approximately two and a half hours away from Sutherland Springs, two eighth-grade students, Zo’e Nicholl and Katie Bird, dedicate much of their time to pondering the warning signs that seemed conspicuous in Devin Kelley’s life. These youngsters, residents of Burnet, Texas, are among the 2 million individuals who have received training from Sandy Hook Promise. Sandy Hook Promise was established following the tragic shooting in an elementary school in Connecticut, which will soon mark its fifth anniversary.
Zo’e and Katie strive to empower their peers by familiarizing them with the indicators that may necessitate intervention and could potentially prevent gun violence. The program engages students in identifying warning signs, whether observed in person or on social media, that may indicate violent tendencies or self-harm among young people, and encourages them to report such concerns to the appropriate authorities.
Citing research conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, Nicholl and Bird emphasize that most threats of violence or suicide are known by at least one person prior to their occurrence.
Sandy Hook Promise, an initiative spearheaded by family members affected by the tragic loss of 20 first-graders and six school staff members on December 14, 2012, seeks to foster a movement dedicated to preventing gun violence and advocating for sensible state and national gun policy.
Given recent events, it is safe to say that these goals are still a work in progress. The two students from Burnet Middle School shared their thoughts about combating such acts of violence during an interview with before the shooting incident in Sutherland Springs.
The interview has been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.
: What motivated you to become involved with Sandy Hook Promise?
Zo’e: I was introduced to the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation through my school. We participated in the Start With Hello program, which allowed me to connect with people and develop friendships. Sandy Hook Promise recognized our efforts, and I had the opportunity to meet the leaders of the organization in Washington, D.C. It was an amazing experience that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Katie: I became involved with Sandy Hook Promise after interacting with fellow group members. We collectively decided to implement the Start With Hello program, which was both enjoyable and inclusive. We aim to make inclusiveness the norm at our school.
Zo’e: Additionally, we have a program at our school called Say Something. While it may not serve as a means to eradicate or prevent incidents, it allows me to be aware of what is happening in our school community. Let’s say there was a potential school shooting – I would be able to recognize if someone is harboring dark thoughts. I could be the person they need in order to prevent such an event from occurring.
Katie: Say Something is a program through which we assist students who may feel marginalized socially. However, its primary goal is to identify signs and signals that someone may be contemplating harm towards themselves or others. We have been informed that 70 percent of shooters or individuals who commit suicide disclose their intentions to someone beforehand. Therefore, a significant portion of these incidents can be prevented.
: What are some indicators that you look for to determine whether a person may pose a risk of self-harm or harm to others?
My task is to paraphrase and rephrase the entire text while maintaining its natural language and providing a unique output in English. Here is the rewritten version:
I would establish connections with these individuals, develop friendship, and enable the ability to observe the signs, intervene, or offer assistance. Quite literally, speak up.
Katie: On a related note, focusing more on suicide, individuals might give away their belongings or display an interest in how others have taken their own lives, conducting additional research on the subject. Another statistic indicates that mass shootings are often planned six months or even longer in advance. We have a six-month window to look for these indications. If we can train children now to be vigilant for these signs, as they grow older, they will possess this ability and take action.
: I’m not sure if you’re aware, but the Las Vegas gunman, Stephen Paddock, had been planning his attack for months, if not longer. He even scouted different locations and sent his girlfriend to the Philippines. Based on your knowledge about these signs, do you think people could have detected something? How can individuals become more aware of those around them?
Katie: We cannot simply approach someone and instantly know these things. We need to educate everyone, both children and adults, about these signs because detecting a change can only occur if we are close enough to the person.
: What would this education entail? How do you envision young people in your generation making a difference in preventing these mass shootings in the future?
Katie: We need to incorporate programs like Start With Hello and Say Something and strive to maintain their implementation throughout our lives in order to recognize these signs in others and provide assistance.
Zo’e: We don’t have to strictly adhere to specific guidelines — everyone has their own preferences. Sometimes, simply conversing with a person can be helpful, while other times, sitting next to them during lunch without saying a word might have an impact. Just being present can make a difference.
: If students wish to engage in violence prevention, how can they do so?
Zo’e: Popularity is significant in schools, and I believe that if we can create a comfortable and safe space for students to discuss these programs, it would be beneficial as people would want to participate. Students would even invite their friends because they genuinely care and want to help their friends. By introducing these programs to more people and expanding their reach, we can raise awareness.
Katie: We can begin with implementing the Start With Hello and Say Something programs. Say Something focuses on preventing violence, while Start With Hello promotes friendliness and openness. I believe that by learning to be more friendly and open, an immense reduction in violence could be achieved.
: Can you imagine yourself pursuing this line of work in the future? What would your ideal vision be for the country and for students to engage?
Katie: I would love to work in this field or collaborate with the Sandy Hook Promise because we can spread awareness among students, who can then go home and inform their parents. We can implement these programs for parents and kids while also displaying material in our community. Any school can utilize these programs as they are free and greatly enhance the environment of both the school and the community.
Zo’e: I would definitely try to invite individuals who are willing to contribute. If larger groups of dedicated students and adults assist in spreading the message, it would attract more people since students usually have limited contacts.
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