The video starts like an innocuous back-to-school shopping commercial, with kids showing off their new supplies, like a backpack and colorful folders.
But the public service announcement released on Wednesday quickly takes a dark turn. Supplies like new socks are used as first aid during a school shooting and scissors are gripped by a student ready to defend herself.
As a new school year gets underway, the non-profit group Sandy Hook Promise released the PSA to prod adults and students into talking about how to prevent school shootings. The video ends with a terrified girl texting her mom from a bathroom stall to tell her she loves her as a supposed shooter can be heard walking in.
“I had to stop myself from crying the first time I saw it,” said Mary Beck, 17, a student at Lyons Township High School in suburban Western Springs. “It’s the first promotional video that I truly feel like I could be in that situation.”
Mary and fellow senior Ella Finnegan are founding members of the SAVE Club at their school. SAVE, or Students Against Violence Everywhere, is connected with Sandy Hook Promise, which was created by parents whose children were killed during the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The group releases PSAs annually, and Ella says people have been critical saying the videos go too far.
“But obviously it didn’t because we continue to have an issue with school shootings,” Ella said. “If this is what they need to do to get their point across, I think it’s good that they did it, and I hope that it’s effective.”
Sandy Hook Promise usually releases a PSA in December, around the anniversary of the school shooting. They play on the major networks and across digital platforms. Co-founder Mark Barden says this is the first release around the start of the school year, and he hopes it becomes a routine discussion for back-to-school time.
“Our students should be worried about just the regular back-to-school things like their clothes and their folders and their backpacks and their lunchbox,” Barden said. “Not how to respond or hide or evacuate in a school shooting.”
Barden says Sandy Hook Promise has trained more than 7.5 million students and adults in preventing mass casualty incidents and suicides.
Mary and Ella formed their school club two years ago. They felt compelled to act after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Ella has heard adults talk about how the world of active shooter drills is far from their school experience. She thinks it’s hard for them to completely understand how current students feel.
“Which I think is a really good thing about this PSA because it’s targeted toward adults,” she said. “Hopefully, it will just make them realize how possible it could happen to someone they know.”
Starting this year, all Illinois schools must conduct a lockdown drill within the first 90 days of school. Lyons Township completed theirs in August.
Mary says she’s had drills as far back as elementary school where teachers would shut off the lights and have everyone huddle together in a corner.
“I’d be sitting in the corner like ‘if they come in right now, we’re all in a little clump. This is over for us,’” she recalled. “For an 8th grader to be thinking that is just beyond absurd.”
Lyons practiced a new active shooter training this year called ALICE, or Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate. Students say they feel more confident about this type of drill. But Ella says that’s only a reactive measure that won’t prevent violence.
“Things like Sandy Hook Promise, and trying to promote inclusivity in schools, is more proactive, and you need a combination of both,” she said.
Students around the country are connecting with Sandy Hook Promise to get trained up on what to look for in fellow students who may be at risk of being a shooter, like withdrawing from social activities or bullying.
They urge students to include someone who may “feel super left out .. . If we can turn their mindset around and show them they’re loved and accepted … then those are the preventative measures we can take.”
Mary says students are taking it upon themselves to look out for each other and speak up if there’s a concern.