Nelba Marquez-Greene believes the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, which killed her 6-year-old daughter, could have been avoided if more had been done years earlier to address the social isolation and mental health problems of the shooter, Adam Lanza.
To help other vulnerable youths, Marquez-Greene, a family therapist, is working with a Connecticut school system on a program to help students connect with one another.
"I want people to remember that Adam, the person who did this, was also once 6 and in a first-grade classroom, and that if we had reached out earlier then maybe this could have changed," Marquez-Greene said.
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Marquez-Greene's Ana Grace Project foundation, named for her slain daughter, is working with four elementary schools in New Britain, a city just west of Hartford, to teach empathy, combat bullying and help socially isolated children. Her Love Wins campaign, created with a local teacher, builds on the existing curriculum and also brings therapists and interns into the schools to help identify children who need extra help with social skills.
She is one of several people touched by the December 2012 shooting inside Sandy Hook who have become involved in the broader movement to incorporate social and emotional learning in American schools.
Scarlett Lewis, whose son Jesse was among the 20 children killed, was involved in pushing for a 2015 law that allows federal funds to be used by schools for such things as recognizing the early signs of mental illness and crisis-intervention training. She has a foundation that has developed its own social-emotional learning curriculum and is being used on a pilot basis in four schools: Rippowam Middle School in Stamford; Ka'elepulu Elementary School in Kailua, Hawaii; Washington Elementary School in Fayetteville, Arkansas and Mission Achievement and Success Charter School in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
"I believe this is an urgent matter," Lewis said. "I believe it would have saved my son's life, as well as the lives of other victims across the United States and reduce bullying."
In the years before the 20-year-old Lanza carried out the massacre, he spent long stretches of time isolated in his mother's home and had psychiatric ailments that went without treatment, according to investigators, who never pinpointed a motive for the shooting.
Marquez-Greene connected with the New Britain school district after she received a letter of condolence from Craig Muzzy, a teacher at Chamberlain Elementary School in New Britain.
Marquez-Greene and Muzzy developed the program for city schools. Muzzy already had been taking pointers from the Ana Grace Project's website, making a reading-comprehension assignment, for example, about a student who moves into the area from a different country, and leading discussions about how to make people feel welcome.
On Valentine's Day, Muzzy's students took part in "Friendship Day" activities, which included making bracelets and cards to exchange. Marquez-Greene attended and helped introduce a new student, Jaden Garcia, to Muzzy's class. She showed students how to get to know him better by asking about his favorite food (pizza), his pets (he has a cat) and his favorite sports (soccer).
Araceli Buchko, 10, made a bracelet for a friend she had made by using similar conversation starters.
"I wanted to try it out and see if they would like me," she said. "I tried one person and it was good. We found out we had a lot in common, and she became my best friend."
The charity has set up four Love Wins family resource centers in New Britain, including one at Chamberlain, geared toward developing the social skills of preschoolers.
In addition, it hosts a day of training for all New Britain teachers on issues such as how to deal with a child who may acting out in class because they are dealing with a divorce or a parent in prison.
The New Britain school district spends $48,000 per year to implement the Love Wins campaign in the four elementary schools. That money comes from a federal Safe Schools/Healthy Students grant. The Ana Grace Project and a private nonprofit agency provide another $40,000 per year.
Dr. Damion Grasso, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of Connecticut, said he believes programs like this, which target children in the early stages of emotional development, may help head off social impairment and some mental health issues in children.
"Schools play a big part in the lives of these children, and so it makes sense that they would play a key role here," he said.
New Britain officials say they believe the Love Wins campaign is helping. They say there are fewer reports of bullying, less absenteeism and fewer office referrals for fights.
"But you really know it's working when you see the children interacting with one another, when they spontaneously go over to a classmate and say, 'How are you feeling? You look sad today,'" said Jane Perez, the Chamberlain principal. "You see it in how they work with each other now and collaborate with each other."