The actions of the teachers to hide and protect children at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012 have become folklore to this point, a tragic but profound example of bravery in the face of a mortifying crisis.
For most, the teachers’ heroics live on in the countless accounts of what happened that day. For some, like Leanora Erica Mims, the stories have motivated action.
Mims, a fabric artist by trade who also teaches about the Underground Railroad through her craft in the Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) system, was so moved while listening to a lecture by Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis, who saved her 15 first-graders by keeping them quiet while the attack unfolded, that she wanted to bring the message to her community.
Luckily, she didn’t have to look far for an opportunity to do so, eventually finding a connection with Sandy Hook Promise, a non-profit organization formed by parents of victims of the 2012 shooting that took the lives of 26 people, including 20 children. The group provides scholarship funding and a network to fight both school violence and gun violence, two causes Mims identifies with strongly. Additionally, they have organized three different week-long events throughout the year to push variations of this message, which is how Mims jumped on board.
Schools nationwide have agreed to take part in the scheduled programs, but the upcoming Say Something Week to be held in DeWitt Middle School from Oct. 16th to the 20th would be the first of its kind in Tompkins County. Mims hopes to hold similar future events at Dryden High School, Newfield High School and New Roots School in Ithaca early next year as well.
The week is full of events built on one foundational fact: according to Sandy Hook Promise and cited in other research, 80 percent of school shooters had told at least one person of their plans prior to the act but even so, nothing was done to stop it. The program is designed to put more of the onus on and empower students to speak up if they see or hear something troublesome from a classmate. Mims said it’s meant to make students more comfortable with reacting to certain warning signs they may encounter from their classmates, such as posts on social media, which could indicate future violence.
“What we’re trying to do is to educate children to take leadership positions within their school and in their community,” Mims said. “How they can take responsibility for their school environment and make change [...] and what kinds of things can you do in your school to change the climate of your school to make it more inclusive.”
More generally, the goal of Say Something Week is to arm students with knowledge that can help them intervene in common school situations like bullying or alienation of other students; as Mims puts it, to make them “upstanders, not bystanders.” She wants students to have more agency to do something about potential problems they see among each other. Things like “Know Your Classmate Day,” held during Say Something Week, are aimed at breaking down the barriers among students in a notoriously clique-filled environment.
Mims’ personal touch on the week isn’t hard to spot either, in the form of her artistic background. She has been gathering materials from around the world and creating a hanging cloth to remind the students of their activities throughout the week. Other visual representations of the week, like a handprint collage, will be on display, something students can create themselves, hopefully taking ownership of its lessons -- another extension of the empowerment the program tries to instill.
“When they leave their school environment, this is something they can take with them,” Mims said. “Even whey they go to college, they can take these lessons. It gives them a chance to empower themselves, and have a sense of accomplishment.”
DeWitt Middle School’s principal, Mac Knight, said the idea spoke to his school’s efforts to promote and embrace diversity among students, and felt the program would fit DeWitt’s culture well. They are constantly looking for ways to combine classroom learning with lessons about the world that might not be obvious to its students yet, but with high school just around the corner, may soon penetrate their educational bubble.
For Mims, this may be just the beginning of her involvement with this type of additional educational efforts. She’s someone who admittedly struggles with some of the bureaucratic processes required of teachers to move up in the educational world, but this has given her a way to influence valuable change for, and work directly with, students.
“This is the level that I can do it on,” she said. “I’m not a political person, I can’t do that. But I’m good at this, it’s a way to work within the school system that makes sense to me and that empowers and values me and what I believe in.”
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