“This year my mom got me the perfect bag for back to school,” one middle-school-aged boy tells the camera as he proudly pulls his backpack from a locker in what appears to be a typically upbeat and direct back-to-school commercial. “These colorful binders help me stay organized,” adds another girl, who is smiling as she sits behind a classroom desk.
There’s cheery music and plenty of smiles. But when a third kid sitting in the library touts how good his chunky headphones are for studying and pops them on, he misses hearing the sounds of other kids screaming as someone threatening enters the room.
That’s because this commercial isn’t actually for back-to-school gear. It’s a clever, dark, and powerful PSA from the nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise, which is trying to jar parents into seeking out more information on how to recognize the signs of impending violence before it happens.
As the remaining seconds of the advertisement unspool, each kid repurposes their favorite gear or accessory in a surreal new way. Fresh sneakers help one kid flee while others aren’t so lucky. A girl plugs her “must have” jacket as she uses it to tie gym door handles together. Another kid uses his “pretty cool” skateboard to break a window and escape, while two more students hide, wielding colored pencils and scissors as makeshift weapons.
Viewers see kids using tube socks to bind each other’s wounds. And a little girl huddles in a school bathroom, tearfully texting her mom as a shooter closes in—thanks to her brand-new mobile phone that she’s still bravely trying to endorse. The campaign points out that school shootings are preventable if you can spot the signs, and redirects viewers to learn more at Sandy Hook Promise’s information page.
“We wanted this PSA to be a little bit different in terms of shocking parents into engagement,” says Nicole Hockley, cofounder of Sandy Hook Promise. “And to help them realize that back to school also means that our kids are back in this environment where they are at risk of violence and victimization or even school shootings, but yet there’s something that we can do to prevent them.”
Hockley knows that devastating feeling firsthand. Her youngest son Dylan was killed alongside 19 other children and six school employees in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newton, Connecticut, in December 2012. “We’re very committed to our mission, which is to ensure that no student ever experiences the devastation and the devastating effects of a school shooting,” she says.
Sandy Hook Promise does that through a program called Know the Signs, which is offered free to schools around the country to teach kids and adults how to recognize at-risk behaviors in other students both at school and on social media, and then take action to provide them the help they may need. Under that banner, the organization also offers programs like Start with Hello, which helps teach kids more about how to be socially inclusive, accepting, and engaging. The group has trained more than 7.5 million people in 14,000 schools since launching that content in late 2014.
At the same time, school shootings resulted in a record-high number of causalities in 2018. A total of 94 people were killed, including 17 students at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, several of whom went on to form the gun control advocacy group March For Our Lives.
Sandy Hook Promise recognizes that such incidents are symptomatic of larger social failings that also need to be addressed. Many kids suffer bullying, being ostracized, and sexual abuse. “We want to help all the kids who will experience other forms of at-risk behaviors or violence and victimization,” she adds. “Our programs help with all of those while dealing with the most extreme circumstances, such as suicide and homicide.”
In March 2018, the nonprofit debuted an anonymous reporting tool and app for kids to share problems they’re witnessing, so that school officials and counselors can work to address them. It’s called Say Something. “In a little over a year, it’s had about 28,000 tips come through from students reporting everything from bullying to sexual abuse and dating violence all the way up to suicide ideation or attempts and school shooting threats,” Hockley says. “We’ve been able to thankfully intervene on a significant number of threats, including fully fledged school shooting plans and getting help for people and ensuring that tragedies don’t happen.”
The latest PSA was created in collaboration BBDO New York, a creative agency whose pro bono work has generated several viral campaigns for the group, including one that appeared to be about a high school love story but really hid signs of a potential shooter coming of age in the background, and another that played on the concept of breaking news. In that case, a broadcaster reported how a totally preventable shooting was about to occur, but no one would do anything to stop it.
“This is about parents and educators taking action by bringing our no-cost programs to their schools and districts,” Hockley says. “It’s really about spreading the program so that more kids can get this training and which we need to have more impact on more lives. All that we care about is saving lives.”