Father of Sandy Hook Victim Shares His New Push to Prevent School Shootings

Mark Barden

Mark Barden, co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise, discusses their moving new PSA and more.

Nine years ago, Mark Barden’s 7-year-old son Daniel was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Ever since, Mark has committed himself to stopping gun violence and went on to co-found Sandy Hook Promise.

I caught up with Mark about his organization’s powerful new PSA featuring young survivors of school shootings and some of their new initiatives to prevent school shootings. Check out our conversation below.

Katie Couric: Mark, this video is so powerful. Tell me how this latest PSA for Sandy Hook Promise came about?

Mark Barden: We do a PSA every year, and, up until now, our focus has been on illustrating the warning signs that can precede a tragedy. 2021 has been the deadliest year ever for gun violence. Every day we hear about another mass shooting. And, with those news stories come all the data and cold statistics of the numbers of lives taken. We wanted to bring some humanity back to this conversation. To illustrate the ripple effects: the physical, emotional, and mental scars of so many survivors — and loved ones of those who were killed — that will never truly heal.

Your little boy Daniel was just 7 when he was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. I’m curious why you wanted to focus on teenagers when tragically, so many first and second graders lost their lives in Newtown.

Sadly, children of any age can be victims of gun violence, which I know all too well. We want to protect them all. For teens going back to school after a year of uncertainty and fear, they are facing academic pressure, trauma, grief, and other strong emotions. This makes it more important than ever to know the warning signs of potential violence and how to intervene to get help. These are lifesaving skills that everyone should have as soon as they’re old enough to understand. 

Earlier this month, we launched an elementary school-age version of our Say Something program that teaches these warning signs in ways fourth and fifth graders can understand. Our Start With Hello program for K-12 grades directly addresses social isolation, which is a key contributing factor to gun violence. My sweet little Daniel used to say hello to any new student or child he didn’t know — it inspires me to know that this program is teaching other children to do the same. 

Tell us about the work you’re doing at Sandy Hook Promise and some of the tragedies that have been averted because of that work.

More than 14 million have participated in our “Know the Signs” violence prevention programs since 2014. And, despite pandemic challenges, we trained more than 2 million youth and adults in 2020 alone.

More than 230 lives have been confirmed to be saved — and that’s only what we can literally count because someone said, “this saved my life.” There have been more than a dozen school shootings that we know were thwarted, along with multiple suicides, and countless acts of violence and self-harm like cutting. 

Here is one example from this year:

Over social media, a 10th grader was threatening their classmates with “shooting up the school,” citing a specific date, plan of attack, and list of students being targeted. Screenshots of the threats were shared through our Say Something Anonymous Reporting System. Our Crisis Counselors contacted the school teams and local law enforcement, who found the student and searched their residence, discovering evidence that the threat was real. The student was taken into custody. 

Who knows how many lives were saved that day, but we are so grateful that our program helped to stop what could have been another horrific tragedy.

As a result of the pandemic, depression, and anxiety among young people seem to be skyrocketing. Are you worried about how that might manifest in school violence?  

From what we’ve seen coming into our National Crisis Center over the last year directly from students, the nature of the concerns kids are facing are more dire than they have ever been. Compounding the stress of returning to school are grief and loss, anxiety about academics, depression, and loneliness. Left unsupported, this can create a powder-keg situation for violence and self-harm. This is exactly why we want everyone to know the warning signs of violence so they can intervene and get help before any tragedy can occur.

Are we making any progress towards more sensible gun laws in addition to the prevention efforts of Sandy Hook promise?

Absolutely. Sandy Hook Promise is a unique voice in the gun violence prevention movement because we work with both Republicans and Democrats to create state and federal policies to keep kids safe from gun violence. 

We continue to have productive discussions with key Republican and Democratic Senators about steps we can take to strengthen the background check system — something that I, and some of our other co-founders, have been working on with Congress since 2013 in the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School where my sweet little Daniel was killed. We are also continuing to work with bipartisan members to ensure there is federal funding available to support states that pass Extreme Risk Protection Order laws, which are proven to save lives.

Additionally, we worked with members from both sides of the aisle this year to write and pass the Suicide Training and Awareness Nationally Delivered for Universal Prevention (STANDUP) Act to expand evidence-based suicide prevention training in schools. This legislation passed the House of Representatives in May 2021 and awaits consideration by the full Senate.