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Hartford Schools adopt new tech initiative to prevent school violence

Hartford Public Schools rolled out a new social and emotional learning program after the mass shooting at a Texas elementary school.

The school district has partnered with Newtown-based Sandy Hook Promise, a national nonprofit founded by family members whose loved ones were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

Students across the U.S. report tips – including comments and bullying at school and online – to a crisis center run by Sandy Hook Promise via Say Something, an anonymous 24/7 reporting app. The tips are reviewed by counselors trained in suicide prevention, crisis management and mental health support.

“The partnership is invaluable,” said Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez. “The program also aligns with our efforts to build on our social and emotional learning curriculum, instruction and programming. Students now have multiple ways to request help if they have any concerns.”

Say Something provides training for middle and high school students, teaching them to look for warning signs in someone at risk of hurting themselves or others, signs of threats on social media and how to say something to a trusted adult to get help.

Over 11,000 Hartford Public Schools students from grades six to 12 have already been trained, including fourth- and fifth-graders in a pilot program.

“Students have acknowledged that while this is sad, this is the type of learning that we need to be engaged in,” Torres-Rodriguez said.

Hanna Pitner, an eighth-grade student at the Environmental Sciences Magnet School in Hartford, said while no one wants to go to school thinking that something violent could happen, being prepared and knowing what to do helps students feel safer.

“I’ve seen a lot of students personally, even when there’s little arguments, like hey, don’t joke about that, don’t say stuff like that, especially as a middle schooler going into high school, it’s amazing to see people who are finally stepping up to bullying to other issues that are happening,” said Pitner. “I love the program so much, and I love that it’s become such a global thing.”

Mark Barden, a founder of Sandy Hook Promise, said students are the eyes and ears in schools and on social media.

“By training them on how to look for warning signs and to give them the tools to do something with that, connect that individual to a trusted adult, or through the app, they can get the individual the help they need,” Barden said.

And, it’s a way to build a more connected community within schools, he pointed out, and to “be an upstander and not a bystander.”

The no-cost program has prevented multiple school shooting plots and teen suicides, the organization said. The initiative has saved 296 lives, and over 3.3 million students nationwide have participated in Say Something.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy from Connecticut, who has been pushing for stricter gun control legislation, said the network of programming and services is important in preventing tragedy.

“There are a lot of kids in crisis out there today,” Murphy said, speaking at the Environmental Sciences Magnet School. “It’s important that we employ every resource we have to identify those kids who are in crisis and connect them with services before something goes wrong.”