Shocking Us Into Action: How to Effectively Discuss School Shootings

Non-profit organization Sandy Hook Promise's latest back-to-school PSA is shockingly effective.


When I was in high school in the mid-late 2000s, people talked about the Columbine shooting like an anomaly.

We participated in the occasional mock lockdown, but a lot of us viewed these as catch-all plans for "terrorists" (and what were the chances Al Qaeda would target our suburban high school?). Today, it would be tough to find any classroom in America that didn't have an explicit, laminated school shooter protocol tailored to that specific room.

Kids no longer think of shootings in the abstract. They're acutely aware that any school day could be their last, and many of them have suspicions about who amongst their classmates would be behind it. For modern American students, actively worrying about school shooters is a way of life. The scariest part is that mass shootings have become so commonplace that many of us have grown desensitized, accepting them as an inevitability even though they're entirely preventable.

But in a media landscape plagued by a 24-hour news cycle and endless noise from all directions, how do you hold people's attention long enough to focus on any one thing? Shock them, of course. That's exactly what Sandy Hook Promise, a non-profit organization founded by some of the families of Sandy Hook victims, aims to do with their latest PSA: to shock people out of complacency and into action.

Back-To-School Essentials | Sandy Hook Promise

Back-To-School Essentials starts out like any other fall season back-to-school ad wherein kids show off their latest school year essentials (backpacks! binders!) as jaunty music plays. Then kids start screaming in the background. A boy advertises his sneakers as he runs down the hall, gunshots firing in the background. A girl advertises her jacket as she uses it to tie a door shut. Another boy points out his "pretty cool" skateboard before smashing it through a window. The kids speak like they're in a typical Target commercial, creating the surreal sense that we're watching a parody. Then the jaunty music stops, replaced by a blaring alarm.

Two kids promote scissors and colored pencils as they hide behind a classroom door. A girl uses her new sock as a makeshift tourniquet for her wounded friend whose leg is covered in blood. Finally, a teary-eyed girl crouching atop a toilet seat croaks out that she finally got her own phone to stay in touch with her mom. She texts, "I love you mom." We hear the door swing open and someone entering the darkened bathroom. The commercial cuts to black.

It's a brilliant PSA: jarring, harrowing, and utterly effective. Utilizing the sterile, mundane nature of a back-to-school ad to drive home a point forces viewers out of their comfort zone. "Shock value" tends to have a negative connotation, but there can be real value in shock. It's one thing to hear about endless shootings on the news. It's another thing to be forced into recognizing that, for many young Americans, going "back to school" is akin to returning to a literal danger zone where they always know in the back of their minds that their lives are not safe.

This isn't the first time Sandy Hook Promise has used the element of surprise, either. Their 2016 spot, Evan, has a similar effect, portraying a cutesy pre-summer romance blossoming for a young boy, while a soon-to-be shooter hovers unnoticed in plain sight. This one directly corresponds to Sandy Hook Promise's primary directive––their nonprofit offers a series of evidence-based Know the Signs programs, full of information to help kids and adults "identify at-risk behaviors and intervene to get them the help they need."

Sandy Hook Promise properly toes the line between shock value and empathy, too––a necessity for any positive advocacy group that aims to inspire real action. After all, there's a huge difference between using shock value to shift public perspective and using shock value simply to generate controversy. This was the folly of a streetwear fashion brand (which I've chosen not to name or link to in this article so as not to give them any extra clicks or business), which recently advertised a themed collection of bullet hole-riddled hoodies from various schools that were targeted by shooters. While good taste might be subjective, the brand's attempt to profit off tragedy is objectively disgusting.

School shooter fashion

Similarly, as gun lobbyists spend more and more money on pro-gun marketing in the face of increasing mass shootings, it's essential for gun safety activists to stay on top of the national conversation and bring us/the public/Americans/consumers back to reality. That reality: Children across America are growing up with a dull, ever-present fear of being murdered at school. Making sure our kids don't die at school should not be a partisan issue.

Perhaps it's time to spend less time arguing amongst each other, and more time listening to those who have survived mass shooting or lost loved ones to the whims of shooters––the Sandy Hook parents, the Parkland kids. Maybe then we'll realize that if we don't do something to make a change soon, any of them could just as easily be any of us.

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