It’s not your typical TV public service announcement.
In what looks like a typical American middle school, a boy flaunts orange zippers on his backpack, flashing a smile full of braces. Then, somewhere down the hall — Pop. Pop. Pop. Students are running for their lives. A young girl hides in a bathroom stall, crying silently as she types “I love you mom” on her smartphone.
This 67-second ad, which debuted Wednesday, is the latest in a series of gut-wrenching videos by the school safety advocacy group Sandy Hook Promise. The chilling video entitled “Back to School Essentials” shows kids dealing with America’s new normal — the threat of gun violence in everyday life.
WARNING: This video contains graphic imagery.
The year 2018 was the deadliest on record for school shootings — at least 83 died or were injured in active shooter incidents. Since Columbine, at least 228,000 students have been exposed to gun violence at school.
Will shock videos work?
Dewey Cornell, an education professor at the University of Virginia, is uncertain of the way chilling images of the worst case scenario might impact students and parents.
“School shootings are terrifying events — they tug at our heart strings. And we see images of them over and over again, which magnifies the perception that they’re pervasive,” Cornell said.
He hasn’t yet seen the video, but he emphasized the statistical rarity with which shootings actually take place in schools.
Still, Cornell said, schools are the right place to focus on preventative efforts. He is the author of an evidence-based threat assessment guide that is widely used.
This fall, 56.6 million kids will attend elementary, middle and high schools across America, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
“If we can help troubled kids, we’re going to prevent more shootings in a community than in a school,” Cornell said.
This ad is released just a week after Congress reconvened, after six long weeks of recess. There is pressure on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as many Democratic lawmakers seem to have made gun reform a legislative priority after a summer wrought with several high profile mass shootings.
“We don’t have to accept this as the new normal,” said Nicole Hockley, co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise.
“We have to compel ourselves to address this head on and do something about it,” Hockley told USA TODAY.
“It’s back to school time and you know what that means,” the screen reads. “School shootings are preventable if you know the signs.”
Across the country in Texas, English teacher Sara Te is gearing up to teach a new class of middle schoolers to identify signs that a student is struggling.
The video will be shown in small groups so that teachers can facilitate conversation and support students who may be shaken up by video’s imagery.
“Our students — they have screens in their face all the time,” Te said. “They hear things on the news. I think they’re all aware that gun violence is a problem.”
But for people who don’t think daily about life in a classroom? “I think some of these PSAs really drive home what it’s like to be in school right now,” she said.
Dorothy Espelage, an education professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said videos like this one can impact parents in a variety of ways.
“Parents are very anxious to drop their kids off every day at school,” Espelage said. “Who would have ever thought that you might not see your kid at the end of the day?”
She hopes parents will be prompted to have tough conversations with their kids. But in reality, she said, the video might just increase parents’ anxiety.
This anxiety — and the idea that schools aren’t safe — turned 20 last spring. Although the first known school shooting took place at the University of Virginia in 1840, the 1999 Columbine massacre is what really woke Americans up to the possibility of mass violence in schools.
This fall, some parents resorted to buying bulletproof backpacks.
JT Lewis, 19, who lost his little brother Jesse in the Sandy Hook shooting, has one but doesn’t wear it.
The backpacks only create the illusion of safety, the University of Connecticut sophomore said. He thinks the focus should be on improving mental health services, and hardening schools.
Lewis isn’t the only one who thinks school security needs to be upped: School security has grown into a $2.7 billion market. This estimate does not include the billions of dollars spent on school resource officers or armed guards, which Lewis also advocates for.
“As long as national politicians are going to be bickering over this issue (of gun control), and not accomplishing anything, we have to take measures ourselves,” Lewis said. He’s a Republican running for State Senate in Connecticut on a platform of school safety.
He hasn’t seen “Back to School Essentials” yet, but he said, “Obviously, we need to do something to keep kids safe in schools because we have failed them to this point.”
Kristina Alzugaray, 17, a high school senior in Miami and a member of the Sandy Hook Promise National Youth Advisory Board, thinks the videos can be a good entryway into difficult conversations about school safety.
Although the obvious audience for these videos is students and parents, Alzugaray said she hopes lawmakers will watch it, too.
The videos convey the worst possible outcome for school violence, but she urges political leaders to consider everyday school safety a priority.
Deborah Temkin, an education researcher at Child Trends, said preventing social isolation, and creating trusting school environments — two of Sandy Hook Promise’s main initiatives — are the most productive ways to prevent violence.
“We have to recognize that we can’t harm our students in preparation for something that most likely is not going to happen,” Temkin said. “We have to balance that need for protection with the need to make sure that we are protecting students in the here and now.”