Let’s pause on this peaceful Sunday morning to recognize the young heroes in our midst.

We don’t know their names. Or their ages. Or their places in the social strata by which young adolescents, rightly or wrongly, often come to define themselves.

But we do know this: On Thursday, Buxton police arrested two students for threatening to use weapons to launch an attack on Bonny Eagle Middle School.

We also know how police learned of the danger: Other kids at the school, alarmed after reading the threats on social media and hearing them in conversations, spoke up.

“I think that’s just astounding and amazing and really encouraging,” Mark Barden said in a telephone interview Friday.

Barden is a co-founder and managing director of Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit organization that grew out of the mass killing of 20 students, all 6 or 7 years old, along with six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 14, 2012.

One of those children, 7-year-old Daniel Barden, was Mark Barden’s son. And if you think time heals all wounds, think again.

“I’m still trying to wrap my head around it,” Barden said more than six years later. “Every minute.”

Barden has devoted his life to stopping the carnage all too commonplace in our schools and elsewhere these days. In its mission statement, Sandy Hook Promise pledges “to prevent gun-related deaths due to crime, suicide and accidental discharge so that no other parent experiences the senseless, horrific loss of their child.”

The organization, funded entirely on donations, has to date brought its “Say Something” program to 6 million students and adults nationwide. One of several initiatives ranging from suicide prevention, to mental health, to threat assessment and intervention, “Say Something” offers no-cost training – both in-person and through a self-guided online program – for school systems looking to stop a mass shooting before it starts.

The tools include a new smartphone app through which students and adults can anonymously report a problem to a call center equipped with up-to-date contact information for that school district. It’s already up and running in Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Houston and “communities in between all over the place,” Barden said.

The state of Pennsylvania made the program mandatory statewide as of Jan. 1. Already, it’s generated 6,200 anonymous reports, including dozens involving threatened suicides and one that led to police recovering a loaded handgun from a child.

When a call comes into the hotline, Barden said, the trained intake worker instantly knows where to turn.

“They know who the principal is, they know who the first responders are,” he said. “So, based on the nature of that tip, they know who to connect to next, what the next step is. Maybe it’s law enforcement, maybe it’s the principal, maybe it’s the guidance counselor at the school.”

“Say Something” has yet to make inroads into Maine. But Barden said Sandy Hook Promise stands ready to work in any way it can with school districts interested in learning more. Start by going to the organization’s website at www.sandyhookpromise.org.

Also, concerned Mainers can volunteer individually to spread the message as “promise leaders” in their communities – more than 5,100 people already have done so nationwide.

Back to Buxton, where a boy and a girl, both 14, were apprehended by police after their classmates sounded the alarm. The boy, who threatened to “shoot up the school,” faces four counts of terrorizing, while the girl has been charged with one count of terrorizing.

It may turn out that it was all so much talk – school officials said there are no indications the two teenagers had access to weapons.

Still, we live in an era when guns are everywhere and school shootings have gone from unheard of to “Where will it happen next?”

Our first and most critical line of defense? The same kids who, once the shooting starts, can only hide in a closet or run for their lives. Kids who, if they’re lucky enough to survive, will spend the rest of their lives coping with an unspeakable trauma.

Clearly, the staff at Bonny Eagle Middle School already gets that. As SAD 6 Superintendent Paul Penna told the Portland Press Herald, “We communicate (the need to report threats of violence) pretty regularly to our students because they’re a big part of the solution.”

Still, if you think that’s easy, think back to your middle school days, when your place in the social pecking order had a lot to do with your willingness to look the other way, to avoid making enemies, to never, ever, go running to the grown-ups.

Courage, in the swirling currents of young adolescence, can be hard to find.

What struck Barden about last week’s news out of Buxton was how intuitively students reacted and how perfectly their response aligned with Sandy Hook Promise’s overarching message.

“They did pretty much exactly what we train to do,” he said. “We have learned that students want to do this. They feel empowered by this. They feel they can make a difference. They can help somebody. They can save somebody. And that’s powerful stuff.”

That might well reflect a cultural shift: The more our children hear about school shootings elsewhere, the easier it becomes for them to see themselves as potential victims. Saying something isn’t just courageous, it’s a matter of self-protection.

At the same time, speaking up in time can spell the difference between saving a kid from himself and, after the bullets start flying, forever branding him an evil, sociopathic monster.

“They start down that pathway as somebody who needs some kind of help,” Barden said. “And it’s a long pathway. We know that there are warning signs along that pathway that are probably increasing. And that’s where (peers) come in because they recognized those warning signs and they took those steps before it became horrible.”

Call it a win-win. The school stays safe and the troubled kids, their threats so obviously a cry for help, get it before it’s too late.

So here’s to you, Bonny Eagle middle schoolers, whoever you are. By having the guts to raise those red flags, you did your school proud.

“They’re heroes,” Barden agreed. “And they should be commended as such.”

 

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