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Sandy Hook Victim's Mother: Compassion — Not Bullying, Gun Law — Is The Answer

Jessica Hall
AP Photo
Scarlett Lewis, mother of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victim Jesse Lewis, speaks at a Connecticut legislative hearing. She's visiting Seattle this week to discuss how to weave compassion into curriculum in schools.

Just days before he died in the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, 6-year-old Jesse Lewis scrawled three words in a first-grader's uncertain hand on the family's kitchen chalkboard: "nurturing, healing, love."

"Those three words were, of course, phonetically spelled," his mother Scarlett Lewis remembered, "because he was in first grade, just learning to write."

Why her son wrote those words at all remains a mystery to Lewis. But since his death, Lewis has dedicated herself to instilling "nurturing," "healing" and "loving" practices in American schools — a mindset she believes would've stopped 20-year-old Adam Lanza from shooting and killing 26 students and staff members, including her son, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012.

'When Kids Struggle Socially, Emotionally, They Can't Learn'

Credit Courtesy of the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation.
Jesse Lewis wrote phonetically-spelled versions of the words "nurturing", "healing" and "love" on his family's kitchen chalkboard.

"Sandy Hook Elementary didn't happen overnight. I feel like knowing a little bit about [Lanza's] history, there were lots of opportunities to incorporate compassion to stop this," Lewis said. "Compassion meaning education, compassion from the counselors, compassion from any component of society. That just didn't happen."

Lewis is in Seattle this week, speaking at a conference of educators and experts looking for ways to better incorporate compassion into their schools' curricula as well as cultures. Attending district leaders, school board members and state education officials plan to discuss, among other things, bullying, school safety, service learning programs and alternative discipline practices.

The "compassionate schools movement" isn't only responding to growing worries about bullying and that "we are simply not doing nearly enough as a nation, or as school leaders, to keep children safe," as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan remarked in 2010. Some conference-goers are more broadly concerned some schools don't do enough to care for students' mental health and emotional well-being.

"We haven't focused enough on this so-called 'soft side' of the development of a student," said North Thurston Schools superintendent Raj Manhas, whose district was among the first in Washington to commit to an international "compassionate schools" charter.

"Whenever it came to things like behavior, compassion, kindness, respect, they say, 'Oh, that's right, we all need to have it,'" Manhas said. "But ... when kids are socially, emotionally struggling, they cannot learn."

Blame Game And Ongoing Shootings

Though Lewis says it's natural to assign blame in the wake of fatal school shootings like Sandy Hook's or Seattle Pacific University's, she says it's counterproductive.

"Who would you blame in this situation? It's so easy to blame the shooter and his mother, clearly. The shooter actively went into the school and murdered all those people. His mother armed him. But if it really was completely their fault, then this would not be happening again and again," said Lewis, citing oft-debated statistics about mass school shootings in the 20 months since Newtown.

Lewis has instead turned to compassion as a means of personal healing and as her method of choice for reversing what she terms "an epidemic of rage in our society." She started a foundation in her son's name and is working with university professors who are developing curriculum integrating principles of compassion into the classroom.

It's a remedy she prefers to policy changes that, some argue, directly led to Lanza's shooting. Though she stands with anyone who wants to foster peace in school buildings, Lewis says, at least so far, anti-bullying or anti-gun efforts haven't worked.

"Anything 'anti-,' in my mind, is meeting resistance with resistance," Lewis said. "Has it been productive? Because the ultimate act of bullying, in my mind, in a school, would be to have a student bringing in a weapon and murdering another student. That's happening on a regular basis now. It just happened, unfortunately, here [in Seattle]."

"[Though] I know it's made a difference," she added, "I think we need to be for something."

The professor with whom Lewis is working, Western Connecticut State University's Christopher Kukk, hopes to unveil his proposed compassion curriculum by September or October.

Soft Skills, Hard Benefits?

Manhas, who used to head Seattle Public Schools, is another keynote speaker's at Tuesday's workshop. In North Thurston, he credits practices that reinforce positive behaviors in schools for double-digit drops in discipline issues and a big bump in test scores.

But he only cites those figures to support a bigger message: soft skills, he says, can have hard benefits.

"It's not saying, 'let's be compassionate,' and that's it. Our purpose there is to help these kids grow both academically, and socially and emotionally. And I believe the growth in those are tremendous."

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.