After Scarlett Lewis lost her 6-year-old son Jesse in the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting of 2012, she turned immediately to researching the root causes of the sort of violence that killed her child. She quickly became convinced that one thing that matters immensely in the context of mass shootings is the inability of most young people to manage their emotions and connect with others.
In the weeks after her son’s murder, Lewis started the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement, an organization that brings curricula into schools to teach what’s called social and emotional learning. I spoke with Lewis about her turn to activism in the wake of her son’s murder, and why she feels it’s her duty to be a part of the solution to mass violence. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Isabel Fattal: What are you thinking about during this latest national conversation about mass gun violence?
Scarlett Lewis: When I saw the talk that was going on on TV and in the media, it was the exact same conversation that we were having following Sandy Hook. I turned on the TV five years later, and I couldn’t believe we were having the same conversation and there was no solution. Nothing had been done. And now, you have these students who are seeing inaction, and they’re still getting killed in their schools, so they feel the need to stand up for themselves. For me that was extremely depressing—because our conversations are not solution-oriented. It was depressing because it’s our responsibility as adults to protect our children, and we’re not doing that.
It goes all the way back to me. I sent my son to first grade, and I didn’t protect him. Even though I know logically you can say, “Well, there’s nothing you could have done. He was where he’s supposed to be by law.” Someone said that to me. It doesn’t matter: You’re a parent and it’s your responsibility. Five years later, I see these kids feeling like they have to take things into their own hands, to protect themselves.
Fattal: What do you think have been the shortcomings of the response to Sandy Hook?
Lewis: I think the reason that we haven’t been able to solve the school-safety crisis is because we are not thinking in terms of actual solutions. The vast majority of solutions being discussed are not addressing the cause; they’re addressing the effect. The cause of what we’re seeing is anger, disconnection, isolation, lack of resilience, lack of ability to manage emotions. These are social and emotional intelligence skills. The solution is teaching kids how to have healthy, positive relationships, teaching them how to have deep and meaningful connections, teaching them skills and tools for resilience. Kids that are connecting and have a sense of belonging are not going to want to harm one another. We have research behind the benefits of social and emotional learning that prove this. This is a scientifically proven solution.
Fattal: Do you wish that the post-Parkland movement would focus more on these kinds of social and emotional solutions?
Lewis: I honor and support everyone who’s out there using their voice. I’m in awe of the Parkland, Florida, students. And also personally, it’s upsetting to me that they feel like they have to take this into their own hands. We should have solved this for them, because there is a solution. Because we haven’t, they have to speak out. But wow, what courage they’re showing, to speak out and to let their voices be heard. And quite honestly, because of the way it is, we need a multifaceted solution. We need to have safety measures, but I think safety measures alone are not going to address the want in a child or a young adult or a former student to harm another child.
Fattal: Do you think that the Parkland shooting is being talked about in a different way than Sandy Hook was?
Lewis: I’m seeing change. There’s so much more awareness. I think parents are understanding that they need to get involved. And educators are speaking out, too. I am deluged with requests for our educational program. I decided following Jesse’s murder that I would take my part of the responsibility for what happened to my son on December 14th. So I started researching solutions. I realized there was a solution out there, and it’s called social-emotional learning. So I started advocating for social-emotional learning, right away.
My message has been the same for five years. This is what I’ve been doing consistently, since a few weeks after Jesse’s murder. It all started when I found a message that Jesse had left on the chalkboard in our kitchen. I found it a few days after his murder. He had written three words: “nurturing healing love.” I knew immediately that if Adam Lanza, our shooter, had been able to give and receive nurturing, healing love, that the tragedy never would have happened. I knew it would be my mission in life to spread this message.