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Our collective hearts are broken along with those of the parents of the Robb Elementary School victims in Uvalde, Texas.

We see outrage in the media. Accusations fly, followed by finger pointing and blame. As our politicians slug it out like backyard bullies, our children are murdered in schools that have become war zones.

I’m not just talking about shootings. We are witnessing more physical fights being videoed and posted online, rising property destruction and growing anxiety leading to mental illness and substance abuse.

Scarlett Lewis, an activist for peace, in happier times when her son, Jesse, was alive. Credit: Image provided by Scarlett Lewis

“Our kids are in crisis,” reports U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, as children fill our emergency rooms with thoughts of harming themselves and others.

We’re demanding that this heartbreaking reality stop, but at the same time we’re looking for a magic pill: gun control.

This was the same rallying cry I heard following the murder of my 6-year-old son, Jesse Lewis, at Sandy Hook Elementary School, alongside 19 of his classmates and six educators in 2012 — almost 10 years ago.

Related: Mass shooting in Texas raises the same old questions about how to protect America’s children

I chose a different route, understanding that we will always be a step behind if we simply focus on the problem. Inspired by Jesse, who shouted for his classmates to run while the gunman paused to reload and who, a few days before his death, left a message on our kitchen chalkboard, “Norturting Helinn Love” (Nurturing, Healing Love), I started the Choose Love Movement to address the root cause of the suffering that leads to these horrific events.

Many children grow up in dysfunctional families and don’t go on to mass murder, destroy themselves with drugs or commit crimes. What’s the difference?

Kids that have a trusted adult, that are taught coping skills and social and emotional competence, kids that love and accept themselves, are not going to want to hurt themselves or others.

Kids that have a trusted adult, that are taught coping skills and social and emotional competence, kids that love and accept themselves, are not going to want to hurt themselves or others.

Fostering those relationships and skills makes common sense and is also backed up by decades of research.

Students who have access to social and emotional learning (SEL) in their classrooms get better grades and test scores and have higher attendance and graduation rates. SEL cultivates self-esteem and the confidence to ask for help and offer the same.

Children learn how to understand their emotions, including the difficult ones, and manage them to get to the other side. They learn the importance of being present, problem-solving skills and how to have healthy relationships.

Jesse Lewis, known for his radiant smile, before he was murdered by a gunman along with 19 other students at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Credit: Image provided by Scarlett Lewis

These strengths last, and in young adulthood students who have had SEL training experience less substance abuse, mental illness, incarceration and violence.

So many of these essential life skills have to be taught, reinforced and practiced. School is the ideal place to make this happen, especially if the child isn’t getting this at home. To be fair, I didn’t have these skills and tools and have learned them as an adult.

Obviously, none of this matters if our kids aren’t safe. What we’re realizing is that all the school hardening measures we’ve so diligently focused on in the past two decades aren’t the full solution.

The elementary school in Sandy Hook my son attended had all the latest technology. It practiced an active shooter drill weeks before the massacre. The safest schools are the ones that focus on culture in addition to door locks and law-enforcement responses.

Related: OPINION: The difficult discussions about gun violence that we can’t afford not to have

The pathway individuals take to violence, as described by the Department of Homeland Security, starts with a grievance that escalates into an attack. Schools that focus on their culture — on increasing compassion, connection and love — can reduce and even prevent the grievances that lead to an attack. 

We must stop doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Tired rhetoric and blaming do not translate into positive action.

The hard realization is that there is no plan other than what we do, you and me. We must take responsibility for our children’s safety, health and well-being and be part of the solution.

After ten years of passionately advocating for children’s safety, I can tell you that the answer is making sure schools implement and embrace these comprehensive social and emotional competency programs.

Scarlett Lewis is founder of the Choose Love Movement providing comprehensive, lifespan, no cost, character social emotional development programming for schools, homes and communities. 

This piece about Uvalde and Sandy Hook was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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  1. This is such a helpful article from an eyewitness to the school tragedies that are becoming normal. My question since Columbine is still why such gun violence and why kids killing kids? Yes, social emotional learning should be part of the daily lesson plan from childcare-12th grade(heck prenatal instructions) but it also needs to be adopted into the federal level of educational common core standards. However, we need to go much further. I am the director of family and community engagement for a preschool charter in the District of Columbia. Social emotional learning has been a part of our curriculum scope for several years. We have extended its practices beyond our classrooms(over the past 6 years) to our monthly parent gatherings called parent cafes, where we offer a safe nonjudgmental environment equipped with food and childcare and topics around building strong families and communities that allow our parents to give their feedback, share their concerns and offer solutions to the relevant problems and concerns directly impacting our schools and communities (11 campuses in our network). We need to get back to the basics which is utilizing the support of parents/guardians and caregivers in the schools on a consistent basis-not just for parent teacher conferences or a school play/field trip or PTA meeting. Parents-the entire family need-no must be welcomed as part of the school’s community and they must be made to feel like they are an invaluable resource for the academic success and positive educational experience that should be a part of every child’s journey. The answers to intercepting and ending the unnecessary often unprovoked assualt on the innocent lay between home and the school yard. Families are valued assets that hold information which can be the “smoking gun” to stop the violence that ocurred in Uvalde, Sandyhook, Columbine, Parkland and so so many more. The calamities that continue to fray our hope in an already inadequate inequitable education system is heartbreaking. And that heartbreak has become a platform for politicians to debate the 2nd Amendment in a context that has no bearing on the actual law. My question and my issue is what does the right to bear arms have to do with making assualt weapons illegal: What does it have to do with changing the gun carry and purchasing standards to a minimum of 25 years of age with a full background and psyche workup at the expense of the gunshop/vendor and holding them accountable for any part of the process they would overlook for the sake of a sale? Why are we pretending that the issue is with the NRA? Like any other advocacy group their vision is impaired and only focuses on the profits and the power of its might. Their number one goal is to protect their membership and keep it growing. Okay, no worries, but please don’t tell me that these folks are not concerned about school shootings that lead to traumatic burdens on the school, its community and our country! Our approach is off. Our focus is misguided. We continue to argue and debate a problem that will not go away and only get worse if we do not stop and be honest with what our overall goal should be as communities and as a nation. Parents, caregivers, guardians need to be trained and taught to look for signs to ask questions and to be in their children’s business. Remember the approach we made as a nation against drugs? The DARE campaign or MADD? These groups are still very active in advocating for their causes. Is there a nationwide group Families, Schools and Communities against Gun violence (FSCAGC)? The impact and weight an advocacy group like this could have is immeasurable. Finally, I recently started a nonprofit whose mission is to help people create pathways out of poverty (not just financial poverty, but poverty of the mind, body and soul). Helping individuals create a plan that is transformative and changes the narrative about themselves and their future will change their perception of purpose. At Connect & Serve, we hope that our mission will reach pass our community and will eventually impact and affect the world we live in.

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