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Sandy Hook Promise's 24/7 crisis center working to prevent school violence

Parkland father says Congress needs to do more
Sandy Hook Promise's 24/7 crisis center working to prevent school violence
Posted at 10:04 PM, May 25, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-10 13:05:31-04

MIAMI, Fla. — On a wall in Sandy Hook Promise's crisis center, news articles, headlines and pictures serve as a reminder of why the men and women responding to tips from kids across the country do what they do.

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“At times, it’s almost chilling," manager Jessica Neely said. “We know that at any point in time, and at any school, perhaps happening right now, is someone thinking and contemplating a school shooting."

The I-Team met Neely five days before 19 elementary school children and two teachers were killed at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX, traveling to Miami for an exclusive visit inside Sandy Hook Promise's National Crisis Center to give a behind-the-scenes look at how the nonprofit partners with thousands of schools across the country, including Pinellas County Schools, to protect children and get them needed help.

The crisis center answers calls and messages from the anonymous reporting system 24/7, 365 days a year, responding to anything from concerns about another student bringing a gun to school, to thoughts of self-harm.

“Every time we post another newspaper article of a possible planned school shooting, a planned school shooting, or even one that indeed happened, it is a constant reminder that we are here for our tipsters," Neely said.

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The crisis center supports more than 5,500 schools and three million students in 25 states. And most of the calls come from one district: Pinellas County.

Neely attributes that to “just really great collaboration."

Free, ongoing training is available to school staff and students beginning in elementary school.

The steps include:

  • Recognizing the signs
  • Acting immediately and taking it seriously
  • Saying something — by telling an adult or making an anonymous call to the crisis center

The crisis center has received more than 100-thousand tips since its launch in 2018. More than 10,000 of those came from Pinellas, where 900 tips involved student lives in danger.

Neely said that during the pandemic, they noticed a difference in the tips they received. More involved mental health-related concerns, such as depression, suicide and domestic violence.

Crisis Counselor Sean Hodgson takes those tips.

“We sometimes receive explicit pictures of self-harm, and those are the ones that stick with me," he said. "But if you keep in mind that you are the next step in getting that student help and making them safe, it helps to lessen that effect."

After getting a tip, the crisis center works to connect the child with a counselor or school resource officer, in their district who checks on the student, to get them support.

10,000 tips from Pinellas

The I-Team met with Sgt. William Connell, with Pinellas County Schools Police Department in Largo Middle School.

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“They all have me on speed dial, I get tips 24/7,” he said of the crisis center team.

“It’s always on your mind that this can happen and how are we gonna stop it?” Connell said. “As soon as you walk into a school building, as soon as you get into your car, you always think about the what ifs. If you’re not what if-ing in this job, you’re not doing what you should be doing."

Sgt. Connell says taking anonymous tips and the crisis center live response time has “helped a lot of people.” He gave an example of how well it worked after a tip came in from a friend of a child who intended to hurt themselves.

The child was riding in a car going north and Sgt. Connell said, “we were able to reach out and get a hold of the family, who had no idea that the person in the backseat was actually texting that they didn’t want to live and their plan was, when they get there, they were going to do something about that."

That child received the help they needed, he said, and is "actually thriving" to this day.

“Had we not gotten the tip and had we not gotten that information, I’m not so sure that child would have been here today,” Connell said. “That’s one of, I can probably say on my hand, six of them that really scared me."

Not all tips lead to counseling. Some lead to arrests. But it’s rare.

“Does it happen? Of course,” he said. “We do everything we can to not.”

Saving students in Pinellas

“It can happen to anyone,” Gibbs High School senior Ashton Williams said about victims of school shootings. “It’s a little scary, but it’s also very important to know that there are people who have tried to stop this sort of thing and that our club, SAVE Club, can do a little bit more to help. So I think it means a lot that we are able to contribute to the memory of these people."

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Williams is president of the SAVE Club — “Students Against Violence Everywhere”. The club emerged from Pinellas County Schools' partnership with Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit that launched the Say Something Anonymous Reporting System that includes a phone app to report safety concerns of violence to the crisis center.

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The anonymity removes the fear of retaliation, which can stop students from reporting the “snitches get stitches’ mentality, Gibbs said.

“I hate that that has become like the theme of students trying to speak out,” said student Ary'ana Davis, also a member of the SAVE Club. “Because our voices do need to be heard.”

Pinellas County Schools Bullying Prevention Specialist Dorene Daughtry makes sure students get the support they need after tips are submitted to the crisis center. And she gets it to them quickly.

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“I have seen a tip come in, even if it’s at 2:00 in the morning and by 3:15 a.m. I’ve already gotten the information, whether the student was safe, what transpired, and then first thing in the morning at 7:00 I am following up with the school team to make sure they know what happened and how they can provide more support,” she said. “That’s how fast it is.”

“If it is a mental health need, we’ll make sure that student — whether they were Baker Acted or not — has support, has outside counseling, has counseling inside the classroom,” Daughtry said. "It’s giving students the tools that they need to have that voice and to stand up and do what’s right.”

School shootings continue

National school safety advocate Max Schachter is a supporter of the crisis center and the 24/7 service it provides, connecting kids with crisis center counselors and then contacts in local school districts, to get the help they need.

He is also the father of Alex, one of the 17 victims murdered in the Parkland school shooting. He was 14 years old at the time.

Max Schachter with his son Alex, who was killed in the Parkland school shooting

Schachter spoke with the I-Team from Alex's bedroom. "This is where he loved to be, and Tom Brady was his favorite football player," he said, referencing a Tom Brady cutout on the wall.

Safe Schools for Alex

The I-Team interviewed Schachter less than a week after the Buffalo supermarket shooting after he had just returned from two days in Washington D.C., packed with meetings, "trying to move school safety legislation so that we don't have another Buffalo, another Pittsburgh, another Parkland."

Related: Accused Buffalo shooter let some people see plans just before attack

When the I-Team asked what gives him hope there will be change, Schachter paused and said, "I don't have hope. Hah, I don't have hope. I'm frustrated that it’s been four years and I can’t get Congress to pass this common-sense, bipartisan pieces of legislation, but I won’t stop, I will do everything I can, this is my mission in life. So I'm really disappointed in Congress that they haven't done more, we had over 200 mass shootings this year, and they're not doing anything, and it's so upsetting, it's infuriating that day after day people are just being slaughtered and the people up in Washington D.C. that we pay and we hire to do our job are not doing their job."

Four days later, the news broke of the shooting in Uvalde.

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Talking with Schachter again, he told the I-Team, "It's heartbreaking for these parents. I mean I’ve been in their shoes and you know, you just hope that this is a nightmare that you can wake up from and you’ll have your little child home with you again, that you can tuck into bed and kiss and hug and it's just — it's just so sad that they now have to instead plan a funeral for their son or daughter and no one, no parent should ever have to do that."

Reaching out to Neely in Miami after the Uvalde school shooting, she responded in a text: "We are heartbroken in the Crisis Center, yet continue the work."

If you or someone you know is thinking about harming themselves there is help available. Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at AT 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Tips submitted through the "Say Something Anonymous Reporting App" go directly to the Sandy Hook Promise National Crisis Center in Miami.