It’s been nine years since a gunman murdered first-grader Jesse Lewis, 19 of his schoolmates, and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
Jesse would be 15 now, the same age as some of the students at Oxford High School, where a shooting last week took the lives of 14-year-old Hana St. Juliana, 16-year-old Tate Myre, 17-year-old Justin Shilling, and 17-year-old Madisyn Baldwin.
Both of those shootings could have been prevented, said Scarlett Lewis, Jesse’s mother, who is on a mission to stop them through Jesse Lewis Choose Love, one of several nonprofits created by Sandy Hook families.
Lewis spoke with Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan about her efforts, her frustrations, and her advice for helping the Oxford community as it heals. Her responses have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
There have been scores of school shootings since Sandy Hook, 30 this year alone. What needs to change to stop them?
We need to shift our focus from the problem to the cause of these school shootings: loneliness, disconnection, isolation, and the lack of emotional management that negatively impact the mental health and well-being of our children. There are essential life skills that must be taught in order to most effectively deal with the challenges we face.
I have learned through my experience that every one of us needs to step up and take responsibility for what is causing these children to perpetrate these horrific events. We are in this together and change is needed.
After school shootings people tend to separate themselves into two camps. One wants to strengthen gun laws by expanding background checks and outlawing certain kinds of weapons. The other wants to focus on mental health. Which is the right approach?
The first approach hasn’t worked. In fact, it seems that it has actually amplified the issue. We continue to implement school safety in a physical sense, for example, by locking doors and arming school resource officers. We aren’t addressing the real cause of the problem: the mental health and well-being of our children.
We need to shift our focus to teaching children how to manage the difficulties in their lives, how to cope with challenges, and how to have healthy relationships and connections. Creating a connected, compassionate, and loving home and school culture can prevent grievances from escalating into attacks. Society is failing in keeping our children safe. We need to re-focus on the needs of our children.
How is your organization, the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement, helping?
I stood up at my son Jesse’s funeral and asked the congregation to choose a loving thought over an angry thought. I said the Sandy Hook tragedy started with an angry thought and a thought can be changed. We have to work on what we can control, and this starts with our thoughts. This is something everyone can do right now to do their part to create a safe, more peaceful, and loving world.
I’m trying to do that through the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement. It’s a free program that teaches how to thoughtfully respond with love in any situation. It started as a school-based program but has expanded into communities, workplaces, and even correctional institutions.
As you detail in your book, Jesse left a guiding message behind. How are you carrying forward his message of “nurturing healing love?”
“Nurturing healing love” (or, in Jesse’s first-grade spelling: ‘Norurting Helinn Love’) are the three insightful words Jesse wrote on our kitchen chalkboard before his death. They are actually included in the definition of “compassion” across all cultures. Nurturing means loving kindness and gratitude, healing means forgiveness, and love is compassion in action
I realized after seeing Jesse’s chalkboard message that if the Sandy Hook shooter had been able to give and receive ‘nurturing healing love’ the tragedy would never have happened. I set out to bring this message to as many people as possible and to let them know they could choose love over anger. I began with children.
How did you find compassion for the shooter who murdered your son?
People are astounded that I forgave the young man who murdered Jesse, but I know that hurt people hurt people. I realized that love, connection, and belonging are universal wants and needs that connect all of humanity, and that if the shooter had received more of it in his life, the tragedy might never have happened. In fact, the Sandy Hook shooter was denied essential services from kindergarten onward. There were stories I read, such as when he was in first grade and came to school with a backpack filled with birthday invitations and no one came to the party. Learning about his history you see the isolation, disconnection, and loneliness that plagued him.
There are only two kinds of people in the world: good people and good people in pain. Perhaps it will take a while for us to understand this as it feels easier to assign blame. In order to stop school shootings it will require that we address the cause and it starts with putting the spotlight on the continued mental health and well-being of these children.
What can the community do in the weeks and months ahead to help survivors of the Oxford High School shooting and families of victims?
The victims’ families and communities are in shock right now. We see school shootings happening across the country but never think it will happen to us. Families are writing obituaries and making funeral arrangements, struggling to comprehend how they will continue to live life without their beloved children.
It’s important to offer techniques and treatment related to trauma and make it available to everyone in the community, even those who are not intimately impacted as these events can cause others to experience trauma. The focus on mental health and well-being must be on-going.
Neighbors, friends, and the surrounding community need to open their hearts to all and offer acts of kindness and extended caring and concern for each other. It’s a beautiful thing that happens after a tragedy takes place as people come together in love and compassion.
I don’t want another parent to have to go through what I went through, and what parents in Oxford are going through right now. We can honor those lost by committing ourselves to shining a national spotlight on the need for mental health services for our children, and ourselves.