On December 14th, 2012, Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook’s elementary school and shot and killed 26 children and staff members. This devastating event led Nicole Hockley, whose son died in the shooting, to establish the Sandy Hook Promise: an organization dedicated to preventing the next school shooting.
Nicole Hockley: co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise
All Inclusive, a podcast on inclusion, innovation, and social justice, with Jay Ruderman.
Jay Ruderman (00:17):
Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman and this is All Inclusive, a podcast focused on inclusion, innovation, and social justice. On December 14th, 2012, America was shocked by a mass shooting that targeted young children. The notorious Sandy Hook shooting shook the very foundations of our nation’s society with the deaths of 20 children and 6 staff members of the school. With me today is Nicole Hockley, whose six-year-old child Dylan, was murdered in the horrific tragedy because of her horrific experience, Nicole co-founded the Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit organization that strives to make the Sandy Hook shooting, the last one. Nicole, welcome to All Inclusive.
Nicole Hockley (01:03):
Thank you so much for having me, Jay.
Jay Ruderman (01:06):
So, Nicole, I know this must be so difficult for you, and I can’t even imagine what you went through, but can you tell us about the day of the shooting, when you first heard what had happened?
Nicole Hockley (01:19):
Sure, and thanks for asking. It was a Friday morning in December and the morning was pretty uneventful and normal. I woke up my two boys, Dylan was six at the time and in first grade and Jake was eight and in third grade at the time. And as usual, we walked up the driveway and waited for the bus to arrive. Dylan was autistic and at the top of the driveway, we’d always play with the neighbors’ kids. He didn’t know how to play necessarily, but they used to play tag and he would always like shout out, “Who’s the tagger, who’s the tagger?” And there was a weird moment before he got on the bus, which has stuck in my mind. There are a lot of things, obviously, that stick in my mind, from that day.
Nicole Hockley (02:15):
But we had a little routine because like a lot of little boys, Dylan had a love, dislike relationship with school and we used to count down the days. And so as we would walk up the driveway, Monday was five days school, two days, no school, Tuesday was four days school, two days, no school. And this helped him understand days of the week and heading to the weekend. So Friday would normally be one day school, two days, no school. And as he was preparing to get on the bus, he looked at me and he said, “Last day school, mommy.” And I said, “That’s right, D, one day school, two days no school.” And he just kind of nodded at me and said, “Last day school, mommy.” And then he on the bus. That was the last time I ever saw him alive.
Nicole Hockley (03:05):
I was at an exercise class when a call came through from a friend, letting me know that there was a shooting at the school where we both had our children. I collapsed to the floor in my class. And one of my other friends collected me and took me in her car to drive to Sandy Hook, which is only a few miles away from where I was. And as you got closer, there were just cars and police cars and sirens, and the streets were jammed. So I got out of the car and started running to where the school was.
Nicole Hockley (03:51):
There were just so many people in there. This is a school with several hundred children and it was complete chaos. And there’s a fire station at the front driveway to the school and they were sending everyone there. And the rooms were crowded with children, all sitting down on floors everywhere, in the back offices of the fire station. And parents were just pressed right up against each other, trying to wiggle their way through to find their kids. And I remember seeing a few of my friends looking for their children. One of my friends said, “I saw Jake, my eldest he’s in another room.” And I said, “That’s good. Have you seen Dylan?” “No.”
Nicole Hockley (04:37):
And another woman who I recognized from the town said, “What class is he in?” And I said, “He’s in Ms. Soto’s class.” And she said, “I heard she got shot.” And that was the first time that I’d really heard that this was a potential. And I got angry and I yelled at her and I said, “Don’t, you dare say that if you don’t know it’s true.” I just kept pressing my way through and I found a lot of other first-graders, all sitting with their legs crossed, quietly. And I was just searching all the faces, looking for D and then a policeman, I think, stood on a chair between an archway and said, “We need to get the kids all to the front so we can start allowing parents to take kids home, make some space.”
Nicole Hockley (05:23):
At this time, I found Jake and he just threw his arms around me, which was amazing because I knew he was safe. And he said, “Where’s Dylan?” And I said, “I don’t know, but I’m going to find him.” And then they made all the parents stop and it became silent. And they asked all the kids and the teachers to get the kids up to the front where the bays of the firetrucks were, so that they could line up by class. And all the kids were walking by holding hands, some were crying. You just keep looking at every face, looking for your child. And he wasn’t there. And I went out front, once all the kids were there and found an adult holding Ms. Soto’s sign and there were only a few kids there.
Nicole Hockley (06:15):
I saw Dylan’s reading partner and she just had this blank look on her face. And I went up to the adult and I said, “Where’s the rest of the class?” And he said, “I don’t know anything. I’ve just been asked to stand here with this sign.” And parents started collecting their kids and leaving. And my friend said, “Do you want me to take Jake home?” And I said, “Yes, please.” I said, “I’m sure Dylan’s fine. I’m sure he’s hiding somewhere and I know Mrs. Murphy, his Special Education assistant, wherever he is, she is too. She would not leave him at all.” They were very strongly bonded. And eventually, it was only some families milling around and they asked us to all go in the back room, and even then, my mind, could not comprehend in the slightest, that there was potentially any harm done to my child.
Nicole Hockley (07:22):
And I started to just shut down and no one knew what was going on. We had to fill in a form that said the name of who we were waiting for and what class they were in. Some people were crying, some people couldn’t stop talking, they were on their phones. I did not want to go on my phone, I just reached out to my husband and I said, “You need to get here because I’m all alone and I don’t know what’s going on.” And then, they let us know that a lot of people had been killed, again, no more details. And then our governor at the time, Governor Malloy, came in with what I now know, were Senators, but I didn’t recognize them at the time. And I didn’t even know who our governor was, I’d only been living in Newtown for 11 months, having recently relocated from England, where I’d been living for 18 years.
Nicole Hockley (08:20):
And our governor started talking and realized that everyone in the room had not been told anything. And he was the one who took it on himself to be brave enough to say, “If we were still waiting in that room, then the person we were waiting for was not coming back.” Yelling, crying, screaming, just complete pain and I just shut down because that’s what I do. And shortly after that my husband arrived, we were assigned a police officer to take us home. Ironically, my street and house was also shut off because the killer lived across the street from me, which we didn’t even know at that point, I didn’t know why our street was closed off. And we went directly to where Jake was, with our neighbors from a few doors down. And I was not able to talk at this point and so my husband had to tell Jake that Dylan had been killed. And I have never heard a child sound like that, he was howling like an animal. And we just went upstairs to the bedroom and pretty much stayed there the entire weekend.
Jay Ruderman (10:09):
I can’t even imagine. And my heart goes out to you and your family and I can still hear, all the years after, how devastated this was for you. I mean, I remember clearly Sandy Hook from a national perspective, it made news all over the world. And there was an outrage at the number of children especially, that were killed in this mass shooting. How did the community come together after this?
Nicole Hockley (10:45):
At the start, the community came together very strongly and I didn’t totally recognize all of that at first because I was just very much focused on my family. But the outpouring of support from Newtown, from around the world was amazing. And we had, there were vigils and President Obama came and spent time with each of us and there were lots of immediate charities formed. People didn’t know where to send things.
Nicole Hockley (11:27):
There was a warehouse that was literally, filled with gifts. I mean, everything from paintings of the 26, of paintings of individual children, mountains of teddy bears, some really bizarre things, as well. But it was a time of united grief. And for some people, then they need to go back to their lives, and for others, divisions start because I think after every tragedy I’ve seen since then, now that I’m so much more attuned to it, there’s always a coming together and then people want to do different things to try to prevent it and it creates issues and tensions. But for my community, some people had already come together.
Jay Ruderman (12:35):
So I want to talk about Sandy Hook Promise and what the organization is focused on doing? But before I get to that, something like this has ramifications that will go on for a lifetime, for those that we’re touched. And I know that there are people in the community who were affected, who have since died by suicide. So, something like this just has ramifications and unfortunately, as we’re going to talk about a little bit later, these mass shootings are something that are quite a common occurrence in the United States. But tell us a little bit about Sandy Hook Promise and what the organization does?
Nicole Hockley (13:22):
Well, we are focused very much outside of Newtown. There is a lot of ongoing trauma and grief and issues as a result of what happened at Sandy Hook School, that will affect this entire generation. And I continue to keep an eye out for warning signs in my own son, who’s now 16 and still remembers that day and what he heard and saw. But for Sandy Hook Promise, our mission is to ensure that this tragedy doesn’t continue to happen in the future. We envision a future where no child ever has to experience the devastation of a school shooting. And we do that by teaching people, how to recognize the signs.
Nicole Hockley (14:11):
In all of the research, when determining the strategy, it became very clear, that to create behavioral change, there’s a lot of leavers that you can pull, education and programs, grassroots, voice, legal action, policy action, political action. And the gun violence prevention movement had only ever focused really on policy and then, soon after politics, but no one was really teaching how to prevent it. And while Sandy Hook Promise is still very much legislate, sorry, advocates for legislation in the area of mental health awareness and funding and gun violence prevention and safe access, we’re well aware that you can’t legislate for behavior. You need to create a behavioral change first and then have legislation to enforce it or reinforce it.
Nicole Hockley (15:08):
So we’re very much focused on, from all the school shootings that we have studied, from the meetings with the FBI, from meeting with mental health experts, social movement experts, academic experts, gun owners, and non-gun owners, we decided we need to teach kids how to lead this change by teaching them, how do you recognize signs of someone who’s in crisis, whether that is from self-harm, harm towards others or anywhere on that spectrum of violence? From bullying to something that could eventually escalate into self-harm, eating disorders, dating violence, domestic abuse, into homicide, and suicide.
Nicole Hockley (15:52):
How do you recognize those signs and then intervene to get that person help? Speaking to a trusted adult, using an anonymous reporting system, fostering inclusivity, and connection, so that something doesn’t escalate and that’s where our programs are. How do we teach kids to recognize these signs, because there are always signs. 4 out of 5 school shooters tell someone before they commit an act of violence, 7 out of 10 people who die by suicide, exhibit signs, and signals. So these are all opportunities for intervention and that’s what we’re teaching.
Jay Ruderman (16:26):
So, I mean, I find it to be extremely powerful and we’ll talk a little bit about guns, that guns are the problem and we have to legislate to, let’s look at people who are in trouble that could become mass shooters. I’ve never encountered that before, but I think that that’s a very powerful way of looking at that. And in a way, very spiritual to open yourself up and to say, “Listen, I’m going to go to an area that’s probably really uncomfortable for me and deal with people that could have been in the same place as the person that killed my son.” And work in that area. But let’s draw back a little bit and talk about gun violence in America. Why do these shootings happen regularly in the United States, not just someone taking their own life, but going and trying to kill as many people as they can, and it doesn’t happen as much in other parts of the world?
Nicole Hockley (17:36):
Yeah. And I’ve heard so many ideas and hypotheses as to why that is, is it violent video games? Is it a mental health issue? When you get right down to it, it’s about access to weapons because violent video games are not just in the United States. People that have issues with mental wellness or coping issues, that is not the sole purview of the United States, as well. What is different, is access to weaponry. And that comes down to our Second Amendment and the way it’s been translated to mean, that anyone can have any gun they want, at any time.
Nicole Hockley (18:26):
And it’s become such a political discussion, so partisan, and so based in fear, that it’s really hard sometimes to break through, to have logical conversations. And it’s not about taking something away. It’s not about being pro-gun or anti-gun, it’s about protecting kids and that’s something we can all agree on. So if we start from that basis and figure things out, but the problem in America is, there’s 330 million people and more guns than that.
Jay Ruderman (19:02):
Nicole Hockley (19:03):
And the fear messaging that comes out from more of the pro-gun lobby is, “You need to be armed to the hilt in order to defend yourself.” Whereas actually, mass shootings are incredibly small in number, suicides are what drive gun violence deaths. And that is all about access and poor storage and lack of safety.
Jay Ruderman (19:32):
I read an article that you authored with Laura Dern, the actress, which said, “In 2020, 23 million guns were sold.” Which was a huge jump from previous years and that in this year alone, I mean, we’re not even halfway through the year, but there’s been 47 mass shootings so far, in the United States and over 200 children have died, as a result. This is a national disgrace and I mean, without getting too political, why are states and our federal government, why are they not able to do more to prevent this?
Nicole Hockley (20:21):
Sadly, they are very able to do more to prevent this, the problem is politics. It’s become a political issue rather than a public safety issue. If it was treated as public safety, I mean, with over 40,000 people dying by gun violence every year, and there are solutions in place, it’s a shame that we’re not able to put our politics aside and just think as people. There’s a lot of work that we can do at a grassroots level, as well. I don’t think it’s just the job of politicians, it’s around how we look out for each other. It’s around how we respect and include each other. It’s also around being able to speak up, where in the past, we’ve been a bit of a bystander culture. I will video what’s happening, but I won’t intervene. It’s someone else’s responsibility to do that, rather than being upstanders and leaning in and saying, “This person needs help, and I’m going to do something about it.” So there is a behavioral change that’s needed for all of us, in addition to then, having our politicians be upstanders, as well.
Jay Ruderman (21:42):
Do you think that we’ve, as a society in America, become in some ways, immune to these shootings happening and just say, “Okay, well, this is just part of life, living in America.” I mean, will they ever stop? Or do you think that we’re just going to wake up every week or every other week, and just hear about something like this happening?
Nicole Hockley (22:04):
I absolutely believe it’s going to stop and that’s my life’s mission, so I will always believe that. I think there is an element of desensitization, but it’s more coming from a sense of apathy or a sense of, “It’ll never happen to me.” We find, unfortunately, that most people only become active in this issue, once it has touched them. And with 40,000 people dying every year, mass shootings on the increase, there is soon going to be a point in time, when it is hard to find someone who hasn’t been touched by gun violence. And I think that will be a big turning point, but I’d rather us not have to wait till we get there and take action now, instead.
Jay Ruderman (22:50):
Right. I want to talk about the shooter and I know this is sensitive. The killer, Adam Lanza, what do we know about him and how he got to that point of doing something so terrible and outrageous?
Nicole Hockley (23:16):
Well, having certainly read the police report several times and having met with the Behavioral Analysis Unit, who did some profiling on him, I think the main thing is, this was a troubled person who had a lot of issues, observable issues throughout his life and they were not intervened on. He was prescribed medicine, he didn’t take the medicine. He was prescribed therapies, they were ended. His mother was an enabler, as far as my opinion is, in terms of allowing his behavior to go unchecked and unsupported with help, that could have stopped him from escalating.
Nicole Hockley (24:12):
We don’t know the exact triggering moment, but some of these signs were evident, even in his elementary school years, with drawings about killing, stories that he wrote. Which a teacher did bring to light, but nothing happened about it. He was incredibly isolated. He isolated himself in his own house, put blankets up, duct-taped up over all the windows, had very little interaction with his own mother. This was someone who had no connection, potentially, had an untreated illness, as well, and had other drivers that made him want to go for infamy and the easy kill of an elementary school. And he had completely unfettered access to weapons. There were lots of guns in the house. They were not kept in a locked safe, many were found in his own bedroom closet.
Jay Ruderman (25:27):
I had a friend in high school who died by suicide, by a gun, and the family had a lot of guns in the house. And I mean, I think I’ve seen your writings. Guns are extremely, extremely dangerous items and they’re all over the place. And the access to them that children may have, is just a lethal combination. But you talked about, what qualities he had or what was going through in his life. Are there commonalities between other mass shooters? Are they showing some of the same traits that we should be looking out for?
Nicole Hockley (26:13):
Yeah, it is around these signs. These are usually escalating acts of self-harm or violence that go unchecked and unintervened on and it just continues to grow. So that’s why I’m so focused on upstream violence prevention, how early in the cycle can we create interventions and stop the next escalation from happening? Because it is a spectrum of violence, no one snaps overnight and becomes a mass shooter. There’s no such thing as that, this is something that grows. And while one sign isn’t necessarily enough, it’s about the accumulation of signs and the increased amount of them over time, that really are a signal that someone is in deep trouble of self-harm or violence to others and needs an intervention. And that’s where the focus needs to be, early intervention, early support, and obviously, lack of access to means, to carry out any act of self-harm or violence to others.
Jay Ruderman (27:20):
So, Nicole, you mentioned one thing in a previous answer, and I just wanted to see what you meant by that? People who are looking for infamy, what did you mean by that?
Nicole Hockley (27:32):
According to the police reports, he had been studying previous mass shootings, such as Columbine, in-depth, and wanted to get a higher kill rate. He wanted to be remembered as having killed the most people.
Jay Ruderman (27:47):
I think for most of us, it’s a really difficult thing to wrap our heads around. I mean, I know it happens all the time, we can list many, many famous mass shootings, where a lot of people have been killed, including children. It’s just so difficult to wrap your head around. I mean, death by suicide happens, it’s frequent, we should work against it and raise stigma and educate people. But the mass shooting aspect of it is really hard for a lot of people to wrap their heads around. But yet, it seems to be a thing out there, that other people are following previous cases.
Nicole Hockley (28:31):
Very much so. That is a very obvious and more overt sign of someone who is potentially planning damage to others, this obsession with previous mass shootings, studying them, detailing, emulating them. That is not typical behavior for many people. That’s a sign of someone who is having dark thoughts and needs help. And the idea is competing with mass shootings and unfortunately, we’ve seen it again. There have been shootings since then, that the person has talked about wanting to do a Sandy Hook, or get a higher kill ratio than Sandy Hook. I can’t go there after the act is done, but if there’s something that can be done to prevent that person from fulfilling that, which is often, also a cry for help. As in the case with the Sandy Hook shooter, this was suicide by mass shooting. There was no intention that our shooter had, of coming out of that school alive and that happens a lot in school shootings, as well.
Jay Ruderman (29:46):
So I have four teenagers. And as a parent, obviously, I’m concerned about them, about their mental health, about how they’re growing up. What are you telling parents? What are we looking for? The telltale signs that we need to see? Like, “Oh, this is not right. This goes beyond, something that someone needs to be counseled on.” But it’s a little bit more?
Nicole Hockley (30:15):
This is about significant shifts and it can be hard for a parent when your child’s in front of every day, and what’s a typical teenager, what’s teenage drama and hormones, and what is something beyond that? So, I always tell parents, “Please trust your gut. If he thinks something’s wrong, ask, get an intervention, get support, have good communications with your kids, and be part of their lives.” But signs to look for include, had they stopped being interested in things that always used to be a passion to them? Have they drawn away? Are they unable to manage their anger or cope with something that would seem to be a small problem and they’re overacting to everything? Are they having significant changes of behavior, of dress, of giving away items, of studying mass shooters, or studying firearms and how to acquire it?
Nicole Hockley (31:10):
Are they bragging about violence? Are they performing acts of self-harm or harm towards animals? Sometimes these are things that also build up. Are they just incredibly different from the child that you’ve known them to be? And if this is seen in your family and as seen in school, as well, and especially, because teachers spend a lot of time with our kids. So we need to also trust what the teachers are seeing in the classroom and not deny, when the school comes to you and says, “We’re concerned about your child for these reasons.” Your heart wants to envelop your child and protect them, but you need to open up your heart to thinking, “The best way to protect them is to listen to what their problems are and figure out ways to support them.”
Jay Ruderman (31:56):
Maybe, Nicole, we can talk a little bit about some of the educational programs that Sandy Hook Promise runs and you can talk about them and the impact that they’ve had?
Nicole Hockley (32:08):
We have two pillar programs, Start with Hello, which teaches kids, how to recognize when someone’s alone and reach out and include them, create connections. It’s all about fostering connectivity and safer school climates. It’s an SEL program that is used in thousands of schools across the country, right now. In total, our programs are in about 15,000 schools, in all 50 states. We’ve trained, I think about 12 million people who have participated in our programs, as of this point. Our other pillar program is, Say Something, where we specifically, focus on teaching kids, how do you recognize signs and signals in your friends? Particularly on social media, where so much communication is done and how to then, tell a trusted adult or use a different system, if your school has an anonymous reporting system.
Nicole Hockley (33:03):
We then launched our own anonymous reporting system in 2018, so that, without expecting kids to create the interventions, we’re saying, “Go to an adult, a trusted adult, or an expert.” And let them say, “This is what I’m seeing. This is what I’m nervous about, and this person needs your help.” And then allow the adults or the experts to do the intervention. Those two programs in themselves, have reduced bullying and reduced isolation in things like lunchrooms, they have gotten thousands of kids to mental health supports that are needed. They have tangibly stopped a considerable, sad number of suicide attempts, and they have stopped several dozen evidenced school shooting plans, that we believe would have taken place, had we not intervened.
Jay Ruderman (33:59):
Can you talk a little bit about the program, Students Against Violence Everywhere? And is there any connection between that and the survivors of the Parkland shooting in Florida?
Nicole Hockley (34:12):
So, Students Against Violence Everywhere or SAVE, is our student youth empowerment, they’re student clubs. So a lot of times, where schools have our programs, we want to ensure that this becomes the fabric of the school. It’s not just a one-and-done training, it’s about how do you sustain it? And it’s about having young people get involved, in being agents for themselves, as to the safety of their own school and community. So we have about three and a half thousand student clubs now, across the country and we do summits and leadership things. We started this in 2017, so before Parkland.
Nicole Hockley (34:53):
And there are SAVE clubs down in Broward District, which is one of the districts that we work with. Ironically, and sadly, we were just about to implement the programs in Broward District when Parkland happened, which I know my team took, we took every school shooting very personally and very hard. But the fact that we were about to train on that, and then this happened, that hurt our team, emotionally, quite a lot. We have, in terms of what came out of that with March For Our Lives and Safe and Sound Schools, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work, we all talk to each other. But we’re focused on different ways to tackle this problem.
Jay Ruderman (35:43):
Finally, I just wanted to ask you, in many things I’ve read, you referred to Dylan as my butterfly?
Nicole Hockley (35:53):
Jay Ruderman (35:54):
Can you talk a little bit about that?
Nicole Hockley (35:54):
Yeah. So, Dylan was autistic and he had limited verbal skills. I was very fortunate that he was good with touch and a huge cuddler. He used to hold onto me like a koala bear, half the time, and just a very happy boy. He also, like a lot of kids on the spectrum, had repetitive movements, he was a flapper. So whenever he got excited, he would jump up and down and flap his arms. We used to joke that he was just going to take off and fly away one day. But I think he was four or five, when I asked him, “Why do you flap?” And I really wasn’t expecting him to answer because of his verbal skills, but he looked at me and he said, “Because I’m a beautiful butterfly.”
Nicole Hockley (36:45):
And at his funeral, which was a week after the shooting, and my husband and I were addressing the people there, I started to talk about the butterfly effect. And this theory that a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world can create change on the other side of the world. And I said that, “Dylan, and all those that we lost that day, were butterflies and their energy was going to create change.” So Dylan is our butterfly and he is that force for change. And now, when I have the honor to go out to schools around the country, and this is no word of a lie. When I’m addressing assemblies with several hundred kids, I see all their shining faces and then I see those light bulbs go off over their heads, as we’re talking to them and they know that they can make a difference. And then, all I see are butterflies because it’s the kids that are going to make this change happen.
Jay Ruderman (37:59):
So, if someone wants to get involved, can they contribute, are there other ways that they can get involved in the Sandy Hook Promise?
Nicole Hockley (38:08):
Yeah, there’s tons of ways to be involved in Sandy Hook Promise. We have a website, sandyhookpromise.org. You can get involved by donating, of course, to enable us to do this work and reach more kids. You can become a Promise Leader, which we have, I think about 8,000 of them across the country, right now, which are our volunteer ambassadors, helping bring the programs to schools and advocate for sensible gun legislative changes. You can get involved in your school’s Safe Promise Club. You can also download our brochures, download the signs and learn what those signs are, if someone’s in crisis, so that you’re teaching them in your own family, to your own children, and to the community around you.
Jay Ruderman (38:50):
Nicole, thank you so much for joining us today. I know this was not easy, extremely emotional. Your work is just vital for the future of this country and I really appreciate the time you spent with us.
Nicole Hockley (39:04):
Thank you so much, Jay. It was an honor speaking with you.
Jay Ruderman (39:07):