Mayor Thomas Bernard, left, Else Yannett of the AG's office, AG Maura Healey and Sandy Hook Promise's Mark Barden listen to a student.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Student leaders at Drury High School are trying to be the change they envision to create a world that's friendlier, more supportive and focused on positive achievements.
Sixteen students from varying sectors of the school were selected to offer their perspectives to Attorney General Maura Healey and Sandy Hook Promise co-founder Mark Barden on their efforts and what more could be done. The roundtable in a high school classroom with students and local officials on Monday morning marked the launch of Healey's violence prevention initiative.
"I just really admire that you guys are stepping up as student leaders and engaged generally in what's happening in your community," Healey said. "We need you desperately right now, young people are leading the way on so many fronts, but especially on this front."
The AG's partnership with Sandy Hook Promise will provide mental health and violence prevention training to some 140,000 students and teachers in Massachusetts. Among them is the middle and senior high school that adopted some of the nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise's programs last year.
"We wanted to come to North Adams in particular, because this is really where it started," Healey said. "And we wanted to have a conversation with people who've been on the front lines, so that we can make this better as we go forward and look to build it out across more districts."
The $1 million three-year grant the attorney general's office and Sandy Hook Promise received last year will bring the nonprofit's training programs to 50 school districts across the state.
"You probably don't even know how important this is, that you guys are bringing this to your school," said Barden. "You are a model for other students, you're a model for other schools across the country, what you're doing with this program."
The North Adams Public Schools are participating for the second year in the Sandy Hook Promise, founded by individuals affected by the Connecticut school shooting in 2012. Its particular goal is to educate on the early threats of violence and its prevention, and it's broader mission is to create safer, more inclusive schools and communities. At Drury, some of those efforts will fall on student leaders who have stepped up to to create a more positive environment in many ways.
"I think I speak for a lot of the kids in the circle when I say leading by example, and being a positive influence around your community is really important," said senior Jackson Sullivan-Bol. "And whether that's by natural talent, or just by saying hello to somebody who looks down, or sitting by somebody at lunch. Making small differences and combining those together to make a larger impact is something that's really important to me personally, and trying to do that every day is something that I strive for."
Principal Timothy Callahan said the students were selected for this opportunity because they are leaders within the school, community, sports and clubs and they've taken voluntary training to help engage students and to make the school environment safer and more supportive.
"That's the work you're doing. You may not be as conscious of some of that work because you have other things on your mind. But all of you are doing that work constantly, I have seen it. And I've seen each and every one of you reach out to people, bring them into your circle and make people feel welcome," he said.
Barden's son Daniel was killed in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. The first-grader had "a wonderful capacity" to empathize with others, and notice when someone was sitting alone are having a hard day, he said. "He would asked his teachers, can I sit with this person, make sure they're OK?"
It was after Daniel's death, Barden said, that he learned the value of reaching out to someone who is chronically, socially isolated — someone who always feels left out or bullied. Sandy Hook Promise offers ideas and training to promote more inclusive activities, such as this week's "Start With Hello" and Monday's Wear Green Day, as well as Walk to School Day at the three elementary schools and "Hello" day on Friday where community members and officials are invited to say, "Hello!" as children enter the schools.
The students also had some other ideas at the upper grade level, such as beginning the programming in the middle school, peer to peer mentoring and older students training younger ones, using ice breakers, and expanding on the "compliment cards," cards made up to cheer up someone's day.
But sometimes the reality behind the programming isn't always taken seriously, said Anthony Pettingill. The students participated in a nationwide walkout last year in solidarity with Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida that also had a fatal shooting incident.
"There were kids that took it seriously. Like, this is not right. We're doing this for a reason and support this," Pettingill said. "And
then there were other kids that are like, oh, everybody's walking out, I might as well walk out, too. But like not in the way that the other kids see it as they're doing it for the right reason."
Barden said it is a difficult subject that shouldn't be sanitized. "But you do have to be age appropriate ... so it's a tough one. I don't know what to say that other than you are right," he said.
The problems closer to home that need to discussed openly were put on dramatic display when Healey asked the students if they knew students who may hurt themselves. Nearly every hand went up.
Senior Hailey Peters said understanding and support would be critical to those students, having been in that situation herself.
"Because when you are in a dark place, it's hard to get out. And I was in a dark place at a pretty young age. And I wanted to blame my peers for not understanding at the time because we were 12," she said. "But I think knowledge is power. So educating on mental health, and other things like that should make a change."
She wasn't sure if this particular program would help, but added, "it goes back to education and kindness." Jackson expanded later that it was the difference between sympathy and empathy: providing fleeting comforting noises in comparison to putting your hand out to pull someone up — or sitting down in the hole with them for awhile.
At the same time, those small things like hello and compliment cards can have really big impacts, he said.
"I think one of the things I learned was that it doesn't necessarily have to be large leaps," Jackson said. "It's a slow process working through it. And those small little nudges help a lot."
Senior Francisco Alicandri wasn't sure that "hello" was enough, because people don't come out and say they feel isolated. You might be thinking it's a kindness but those on the receiving end my not respond to just a surface kindness. There needs to be some sort of intimacy, he said, for people to connect. Jackson agreed that just saying hello may not mean much — but it allows for a conversation to start that can continue further.
Hailey Peters speaks about the need for mental health education.
Mayor Thomas Bernard, state Rep. John Barrett III, state Sen. Adam Hinds and District Attorney Andrea Harrington also spoke briefly Harrington said she will be re-evaluating the school-based programs offered through her office and will consider the Sandy Hook Promise programs as a resource to work more collaboratively with the attorney general's office on education.
Healey said she and her staff would be taking back all of the comments made by the students and looking at that information to see how the programs could be made better. Barden said the programs are being used in all 50 states but the organization was making sure it grew with "100 fidelity and 100 percent ability to sustain."
"We try to meet the unique challenges of each community so that we can serve those communities to the best of our ability," he said.
Elise Yannett, policy coordinator for the attorney general's office, said further trainings will be made available in the coming year for "say something," the signs and symptoms of suicide and depression and how to get help, and how to build connections with community health care representatives in the schools.
"We have great faith in your resilience and capacity, and in your ability to take us forward in a really positive way. And I think adults have failed you in a number of ways," Healey said. "I think that you should really be so proud of yourselves. ... I really appreciate your candor and in your willingness to tell your stories and to talk about stuff, even if it's difficult. And in the act of telling, I think you also make it possible for others to tell."
Students participating in Monday's roundtable were Francisco Alicandri, Kayla McGrath, Caroline Cellana, Dante Woodson, Anthony Pettengil-Montanye, Brock Winters, Isabel Lescarbeau, Holly Boudreau, Hailey Peters, Madeline Nesbit, Molly Wojnicki, Xavier Delisle, Madison Tatro, Ryan Goodell, Mike Boudreau and Jackson Sullivan-Bol.
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A tropical storm heading north up the Atlantic coast could bring more rain to the Berkshires over the weekend.
Dubbed "Fay," the storm began as a tropical depression off the coast of North Carolina midweek and formed late Thursday.
According to Accuweather, the storm has sustained winds of 60 mph and could bring 2 to 4 inches of rain over Western Mass and Southern Vermont from late Friday through Saturday morning.
"Fay will make landfall along the New Jersey coast during Friday afternoon," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist and Lead Hurricane Expert Dan Kottlowski said. "Fay will be a mostly heavy rain producer but could still bring wind gusts of 50-60 mph along coastal areas of eastern Long Island and over southern coastal areas of New England."