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Mom of 6-year-old Sandy Hook victim brings school safety model to NH

New Hampshire Union Leader

June 30. 2018 11:18PM
Jesse Lewis and his mom, Scarlett, at his 6th birthday celebration. Jesse was killed in the Newtown, Conn., school shooting before he turned 7. (Courtesy)

MANCHESTER - Scarlett Lewis of Newtown, Conn., said her son, Jesse, would have turned 12 on Saturday had he not jumped in front of shooter Adam Lanza and given up his life to save nine of his fellow first-grade students at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

New Hampshire last week delivered a major milestone for Jesse's lasting legacy.

Since the day of Jesse's funeral, Lewis has for 5½ years thrown herself into creating the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement that's centered on bringing social emotional learning (SEL) curriculum to every classroom in America. The Sandy Hook massacre on Dec. 14, 2012, is considered one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history.

And while Jesse has now been dead for as long as he lived, his dedicated mother got to see New Hampshire become the first state to embrace an SEL program statewide as part of the School Safety Preparedness Task Force report released Friday.

"It took my son's murder to wake me up to the understanding that we as adults are responsible for our children's safety in school. No one else is," Lewis said during a telephone interview Saturday.

"I was like everyone else looking at Columbine in the checkout line at the grocery store on the way home to put dinner on the table for my two boys as a single mom. I thought, 'Oh my God, that's horrible, but that would never happen to me.' I was going to say a prayer for them and put it out of my mind. Then it did happen to me, and I realized we all have to take responsibility."

The task force report is nearly 100 pages long and contains 59 recommendations that followed more than 90 days of study and 1,000 hours of research by the high-powered group of educators, law enforcement, human service professionals, students and a host of other stakeholders.

There's the call for a "See Something, Say Something" program for schools, secure lock boxes, more robust active-shooter training, a confidential tip line, more visible police presence and even panic buttons in every school to immediately notify first responders of an incident.

But Gov. Chris Sununu put his focus Friday on Lewis' call to provide students and staff with the skills to reject negative thoughts and instead embrace a positive and healing approach that she said can reduce school violence, addiction, suicide and "toxic anxiety."

"I've had the honor of working with Scarlett Lewis, who is the mother of Jesse Lewis, victim of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting," Sununu said.

"She is a national leader in social emotional learning and creator of the Choose Love movement. As a state, New Hampshire will provide a backbone of support through Scarlett's program to introduce social emotional learning curriculum. Schools will certainly retain their autonomy to use programs that they are familiar with and have success with, but we want to ensure that every student and school has the opportunity to benefit from proven SEL curriculum."

Praise for New Hampshire

SEL is a pre-K through 12th-grade program that focuses on what it considers the five core competencies for social and emotional learning: self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, social awareness and relationship skills. The program has been downloaded in all 50 states and more than 55 countries.

Lewis commends Sununu for not pushing the "reactive" response that so many public officials have to these threats, thinking that building more bulletproof windows or installing more locked exits in a vacuum makes children safer.

"It takes a courageous person to do something that might be slightly uncomfortable. Instead of being reactive, having someone step outside their comfort zone to do what is best for children is what we need today," Lewis said.

"This reduces the suffering before it starts. He is the first governor to adopt this as part of their statewide school safety plan. He is going to set the tone. We are beyond thrilled."

State Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Perry Plummer said lawmakers and Sununu have acted to make the infrastructure harder for school threats to succeed.

"I am proud to represent a state that was already ahead of most of the nation when it comes to school safety and still invested 30 million dollars to make our schools even safer," Plummer said.

New Hampshire became the first state to promote the social and emotional learning curriculum as part of a school safety task force. Here are leaders in that effort, from left, Christine Brennan, deputy education commissioner; Gov. Chris Sununu; Scarlett Lewis of Newtown, Conn., the chief movement officer at the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement; N.H. Homeland Security head Perry Plummer; and Shannon Desilets, ambassador for the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement. (Courtesy)

Other dividends

These SEL skills can provide more dividends than just safer schools, Lewis said.

"Kids that receive social and emotional learning get better grades and test scores, higher attendance rates, higher graduation rates, less anxiety, less bullying, less domestic violence, less incarceration, even lower divorce rates," Lewis said.

On the anniversary of Jesse's birth, Lewis realized her calling was secured once she came to forgive Lanza and his first victim, Nancy Lanza, who, like Lewis, was a single mom.

The Lanzas had lived in Kingston before moving to Newtown.

"An incredible part of my healing journey has been my willingness to forgive," Lewis said.

"When people heard I wanted to put forgiveness in the program, people thought, 'Oh my gosh, isn't that a lofty subject for the kids?' But the kids get it. They use it in their own lives all the time."Lewis said her work comes down to the three words her 6-year-old son had scribbled on the kitchen chalkboard before going to school that fateful day in 2012.

"Nurturing, healing love," Jesse wrote.

"Never does a day go by or even a moment that I am not thinking about Jesse, that I'm not missing him, that I don't deal with grief," Lewis said. "I am still grieving and I probably will for the rest of my life."

Lewis admitted only this unspeakable loss could have led to this becoming her life's work.

"It is absolutely what drives me, wanting to be part of the solution," Lewis said.

"It's the understanding that what happened to Jesse and his classmates is 100 percent preventable.

"My unconditional love is what propels me because we know what to do to make not only our schools safer but our society happier as well."

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