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Nine years later, a Newtown father remembers the gun violence tragedy and works to prevent others

Tina Fineberg

Tuesday marks nine years since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Mark Barden’s 6-year-old son Daniel died in the shooting. He has since become one of America’s most prominent advocates for gun violence prevention.

Barden is part of the Newtown-based advocacy group Sandy Hook Promise. WSHU’s Davis Dunavin spoke with him about what this day means to him.

WSHU: I understand that you prefer not to use the term "anniversary," that you prefer the term "day of remembrance." What does that mean for you?

Mark Barden: Well, Davis, all year long there are trigger points. Some of them I can anticipate and some of them I can’t. These days of remembrance, like birthdays, holidays, back to school and, of course, December 14, are always particularly difficult. For so many obvious reasons, and some I can’t even calculate. Like I said, there are things that come out of the blue that will send you off the edge.

WSHU: In your work and in your travels, I imagine you must speak with a lot of other parents who’ve lost children. What do you say to them?

Mark Barden: You know, that’s a hard one. You’re right, Davis, I do encounter a lot of folks who are suffering a tragedy. There are families who join this club every day in this country. The drumbeat of death by gunfire continues every day in our communities. It’s really difficult how to approach somebody even though I’m suffering the same loss. We’re all dealing with this in our own individual way. And all I can share with them is I’m here with you, and that there is really no wrong way to grieve, and that there will be folks in your network who want to help and to let them help.

A leader in gun violence prevention

Sandy Hook Promise has released several PSAs over the years, including one that won an Emmy last year. Earlier this year, they released one featuring survivors of school shootings singing Katy Perry’s song “Teenage Dream.”

More than 3,500 schools across the country heed that call to action with student clubs called SAVE Promise Clubs, affiliated with Sandy Hook Promise. This year those clubs are taking part in 14 days of action leading up to December 14. Barden said they’re simple things, like check-in on a friend, or prioritize self-care.

Students at a roundtable last week said they’ve grown up in the shadow of mass shootings. California high schooler Dyuthi Kumar said she’s always lived in what’s considered safe suburban neighborhoods.

“And yet, somehow, school violence and youth suicide have been steadfast presences in my life,” Kumar said. “I was doing school shooting drills in elementary school. They taught us to barricade the door. Once the doors are locked, even if you hear your friend, you can’t open it. If you’re in the bathroom, lock the stall, put your feet up and hope for the best. And, you know, that’s where it starts.”

She said she’s been through multiple shooting threats in middle school and high school.

“If I, as an incredibly privileged and sheltered individual, am able to put a finger on all these instances that have one-by-one shaped me into a fearful and insecure individual, what are the rest of American students living with?” Kumar asked. “I don’t know how we have normalized seeing headlines saying ‘multiple 14-year-olds shot at school they are legally obligated to attend,’ and absolutely no radical action to prevent future incidents.”

Mark Barden said the students brought the idea of 14 days of action to Sandy Hook Promise, not the other way around.

Mark Barden: They wanted to have a national conversation about awareness and education around gun violence prevention. They’re doing an amazing job, and we are more giving them a platform … You know, gun violence is not inevitable in the United States. It is preventable. We have the tools to do that. If we can train people how to know the signs and take it seriously and act immediately, we can connect somebody to help before it becomes a tragedy.

WSHU: You mention knowing the signs. What are some of the signs we should know?

Mark Barden: Parents and teachers and peers, students themselves need to be vigilant and be able to identify changes in behavior, withdrawing, bullying, being bullied, fascination with firearms, ideating on suicidal intentions or thoughts. It doesn’t mean someone is on their way to self-harm or creating violence on others — but it could be. And at the very least, you could intervene on something that is innocuous and nothing was gonna happen and that’s fine. On the other side of that, you could intervene on something and save a whole lot of lives.

WSHU: I’m sure you’ve followed, as we all have, what happened in Oxford, Michigan. The warning signs were there. The shooter made troubling drawings, troubling writings and educators noticed them.

Mark Barden: I think, Davis, we’ll learn more as this develops and take what we learned from this and learn better how to prevent these things from happening again. And right now my heart and my thoughts are with these families whose children were violently ripped away from them. I’m on this journey myself. And that’s what I continue to think about. It underscores for me the importance and the value of teaching people how to look at those warning signs, take that seriously, act immediately and tell a trusted adult and get somebody to whatever help or services they need.

Making change

A different story played out at another high school in Indiana last week.

School officials got an anonymous tip about a threat at the school on social media. Someone reported it on an app called Say Something, designed by Sandy Hook Promise. It’s for people to submit anonymous concerns about someone who may be a threat to themselves or others. Officials say they resolved the threat and the school is safe.

Sandy Hook Promise said its app helped stop the Indiana school shooting — one of more than 60 acts of violence it has said to have prevented over the last nine years.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.