One knew students who self-harm. One knew a girl who wanted to kill herself. Another formerly attended Newtown, Conn., schools. And the fourth knew one of the children who died in the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.
Each had a personal reason for banding together to make the “Say Something” project at Danbury High School a success. Now, they hope to produce a free toolkit that school resource officers, school administrators and teachers can use to start their own community awareness efforts.
The four students — Lizzy Newbold, Yago Zoccarato, Natalia Szurawski and Isabel Gustems — took on the Say Something campaign as a class project, but all of them brought a special passion to the classwork because of their past experiences. The project focuses on encouraging students to be aware of signs of suicidal behavior, being bullied and substance abuse, and reaching out to responsible adults such as school resource officers, counselors, teachers and administrators for help. The campaign they spearheaded included activities ranging from a poetry contest to a photo booth, with students encouraged to share their support via social media; from a “Wear Green” Day to the four seniors giving class presentations to freshmen; from bulletin boards carrying signatures of student support to an assembly with Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, Danbury Superintendent of Schools Sal Pascarella and Mark Barden of sponsoring organization Sandy Hook Promise, who lost a son in Newtown shooting incident.
“We all had individual reasons for wanting to spread the word,” says Szurawski. “I had a friend who told me she wanted to commit suicide, and I told someone and got her help. At the time, I didn’t know the signs and signals to watch for in someone who is suicidal, and now every student here at Danbury knows those signs and signals thanks to the program.
“After the assembly, she came up on the stage and took my hand and said thank you. It was a very emotional moment for me.”
“We rolled this out in conjunction with Sandy Hook Promise, and what we started here in Danbury has really caught fire throughout the state. We’re sponsoring a kickoff program, which will include a web component, for representatives from other schools around the state,” says Danbury Principal Gary Bocaccio, adding that because Danbury is only seven to eight miles from Newtown, many students have connections there.
Two students with connections are Gustems and Newbold. Gustems, who previously attended Newtown schools, said her friends who live there told her their younger siblings were terrified about returning to school, and “that was extremely disheartening. School is important not just for education, but for the social aspect. I feel this program can make a change in communities so students feel safe and welcome in their schools.”
Newbold, who took on Say Something as her Peer Leadership class project before the 2015-2016 school year even started, knew a girl who died in the Newtown shooting, “so when I was approached over the summer about taking this on as project, I felt passionate about it. If we can implement this in all the Danbury schools and then throughout Connecticut, we can build on the hurt in the community and be a positive influence to keep something of the same nature from reoccurring.”
The approach to Newbold came via Susan Schullery, who teaches the Peer Leadership class. Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit organization, had developed the Say Something approach and offered information via its website, but hadn’t had a lot of success with getting schools to implement the program. An email brought a suggestion to Schullery that someone from her Peer Leadership class might take on implementing Say Something in Danbury, and she says when she read about it, she decided she could find a student who would “have the passion” for the project. What she didn’t expect was to find four.
“Lizzy kicked it off with a PowerPoint presentation to all teachers districtwide. Her passion became contagious to the others, who also had their special reasons for becoming connected,” Schullery says. “It goes much deeper than just a project with them. I remember Yago commenting that he didn’t think it would go beyond the walls of the school, but it’s turned into something really big. They hope to put a legacy in place that they can leave behind, and they’re creating a toolkit that other schools can use to implement it as part of this legacy.”
Zoccarato may have initially thought the program wouldn’t reach beyond the walls of Danbury High, but he says that when the team rolled out the planned activities, the other students caught on quickly. “They were proud to take it on and proud to be a part of it,” says Zoccarato, who became involved because he had friends who were self-inflicting pain, and he feared that suicide could be the next step. That led to his involvement in the Say Something launch and the development of the toolkit.
“I can’t say how proud I am of them for taking the initiative to sustain this,” Bocaccio says. “They’ve rallied our community and all the students feel like they’re working toward a common cause. We hope to have a similar effect in other school districts throughout the state. Our superintendent has brought it forward to all the other superintendents in the state and challenged them to make it a priority by participating in the kickoff meeting. This is going viral across Connecticut, and we’d like to see it spread across the country.”
“This isn’t just a project, this is a movement. We’re changing not only our community, but all the surrounding communities as well. There’s no stopping this,” Szurawski says.