Iowa City West plans Sandy Hook Promise curriculum to curb potential violence

The Sandy Hook Promise initiative involves a multistep, semester-long plan to teach students how to report harassment or suspicious activity.

Christopher Borro, News Reporter

A local high school is implementing new measures to prevent gun violence and ensure a safer community by educating students to pay attention when their peers display signs of distress.

Iowa City West High recently implemented the Sandy Hook Promise, an initiative started by family members of the victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

West Principal Gregg Shoultz said he and other school administrators learned about the curriculum over the summer from parents and community members.

“[We want] to have a safe learning environment in which students are all connected to their school in positive ways,” Shoultz said. “Better than any metal detector or external device we can put on the building, that’s the best way to have a safe community.”

The crux of the initiative is the school’s @SaySomething campaign. Students are encouraged to text @SaySomething to a six-digit number. Then, they will be provided with a form that allows them to anonymously submit information about either harassment they or others might experience or the potential violent or suicidal thoughts of their peers.

Many of the initial tips sent through the format were simply tests to see how the system worked, but Shoultz said there were a few real instances of bullying behavior that were quelled thanks to the system.

Another aspect students learn in their first week of the semester is the Start With Hello campaign by the Sandy Hook Promise organization. The aspect of the initiative is designed to foster a sense of community by bringing students together through positive social interactions.

Know the Signs, the third part of the curriculum, teaches students to recognize when others are demonstrating behavior that might lead them to commit acts of violence. Suicide prevention also plays an important part, and Shoultz said the school will focus on that later in the semester.

Part of the curriculum involves ensuring that students know their options when it comes to trying to prevent violent situations from occurring, said John Roarick, the West High student and family advocate.

“We want everyone to feel comfortable talking about whatever is concerning them, and they have many outlets for … reaching out,” he said.

Roarick said school administrators talked with counselors on how the Sandy Hook Promise would be run, and organizers designed the curriculum to familiarize students with the various avenues they have for contacting others about potential problems.

West guidance counselor Greg Yoder said teachers are often the first people students turn to if they’re in distress or know of someone who is, and the teachers then usually discuss the matters with counselors or school administrators.

“In the media nowadays, often, kids see things across the country, incidents of violence, and obviously that piques concerns,” Yoder said. “It can be very unsettling, and [the Sandy Hook Promise curriculum] is an opportunity for us to bring to the forefront that there are people that you can go to.”