After Newtown: A Plea for Empathy and Upstanders | Not in Our Town

After Newtown: A Plea for Empathy and Upstanders

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From The North Royalton Early Childhood PTA and students from the Early Childhood Center provide some community service for their peers in Newtown, CT

By Becki Cohn-Vargas, Not In Our School Director

Becki Cohn-Vargas, Director of Not In Our School, NIOS, NIOT, Not in our townAfter the massacre in Newtown, the National PTA launched a campaign to send snowflakes to Sandy Hook School. The result: thousands of snowflakes from all over the United States were delivered as a message of empathy and blanketed the grieving community.

NIOS believes that rather than arming teachers or posting guards at every school door, there is a better way to provide our children with vital skills that will serve them through their lives. Children can be taught empathy and to stand up for those in danger of harming themselves and others. Educators can also give young people the courage and skills to be upstanders who alert an adult when their peers show signs of danger. Let me emphasize that I am not saying the innocent children of Newtown could have stopped this horrific crime. But perhaps there were intervention points at an earlier stage that could have prevented the shooter from destroying so many lives.

Forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz states that while it is impossible to predict who will be a mass killer, shooters often give many warnings before they act. When trained to identify the signals and speak up, people can avert shootings and suicide.

Recently we heard of a successful intervention in one of the high schools with a Not In Our School Club. Club members discovered a student was planning to bring a gun to school and they informed administrators. The result was that the student is getting help and the potential shooting was prevented.

Not In Our School recently partnered with the National Center for Media Engagement and PBS to share our materials on their program, After Newtown. The film Paths to Violence, which is part of the After Newtown series, is well worth watching. They offer examples from more than 120 school attacks that have been thwarted in the past decades, thanks to upstanders. 

At this vital moment, a promising long-term option would be to redouble efforts to teach children empathy and ways to stand up for each other, thus blanketing our schools with a blizzard of snowflakes so our students will grow up to make a safer world.

Learn more about After Newtown at