What do you do when loss upends your life? Scarlett Lewis’s nonprofit aims to prevent school shootings by bringing social and emotional learning to schools.
Six years ago, Scarlett Lewis’s day started like any other when she sent son Jesse to school at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It ended in a way that no parent could possibly ever prepare for.
What she’s done since has been a remarkable story of resilience, and a lesson for anyone on how to deal with the enormity of loss. She has literally traveled back and forth across the country, on what seems to be a never-ending mission to meet with parents, teachers and lawmakers. Driving her is the belief that she knows the answer to a question we find ourselves repeatedly asking: How do we prevent school shootings?
Lewis is the founder of the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement, a 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit backed by the Buffett family’s NoVo Foundation, among others. She posits that a curriculum called social and emotional learning, which has been around for decades and the subject of much scientific research, could greatly reduce acts of violence like the Sandy Hook massacre. Her organization’s programs, now in schools in all 50 states, teach kids how to manage emotions and have healthy relationships, what some might refer to simply as life skills. “These are things we are not born with,” Lewis says. “We have to learn them.”
A Chaotic Scene
Before Dec. 14, 2012, Lewis says she had never heard of social and emotional learning. Born in Fayetteville, Arkansas, she had followed her father into the bond trading business, at one point working at the investment banking firm of Walmart heiress Alice Walton. She eventually moved to New York City, fell in love and had her first son, JT, now 18.
By 2006, she had divorced, moved to a Connecticut farmhouse, and given birth to JT’s half-brother, Jesse. “He was a big baby,” she says, remembering how the nurses joked that, at 11 pounds, he was trying to crawl out of his bassinet. “It was a great way to describe him because he was larger than life always, for his entire life, bouncing off the walls with energy … always loud, always having fun.”
The early years were tough, however, as Lewis, a single mom, dropped the boys off at daycare or school and often commuted to Manhattan. On the day of the shooting, she was working at an office in Orange, Connecticut, about 45 minutes from Sandy Hook, when the news broke. “I decided to go to the school,” she says. “There was a report that there was a teacher shot in the foot. I didn’t really get worried, really worried — believe it or not — until I got close to the school.” Police cars, ambulances, helicopters, and “first responders all over the place” made it a chaotic scene.
It is obviously difficult for Lewis to recount the details of the day, including the long wait she endured while other parents tearfully reunited with their children and left. “We didn’t get a lot of information, and I almost think that was a blessing,” she says. By the time someone on the scene gently told her that Jesse was dead, she already knew it in her heart. “At that point I….just wanted to leave,” she says. It had all become too much: the school, the police lines, the media who were descending. “I just wanted peace.”
A Message on a Chalkboard
Lewis lives in a 1740s farmhouse, a property she purchased 20 years ago because it was everything she ever wanted in a home. “I remember the day that we pulled into the driveway and it was just this pastoral, beautiful scene,” she says. Dubbed Wild Rose Farm, the property has a paddock and hay barn, and enough room for horses, chickens, multiple dogs, even a miniature donkey she had bought Jesse about 2 months before he died. Every morning, “I hear ‘he-haw he-haw,’” she says. “So darn cute.”
Immediately after the shooting, it was too difficult for Lewis to return. For several weeks, she stayed with her mother a short distance away in Darien, only going back to the farmhouse to pick out clothes for Jesse’s funeral. She remembers thinking “they have to be warm because it’s winter.”
Leaving Jesse’s room that day, she looked toward the kitchen and spotted a message that her 6-year-old had left on a spray-painted chalkboard near the oven. “He wrote three words, ‘nurturing, healing love,’ and it just stopped me right in my tracks,” Lewis says. “I knew instantly that if Adam Lanza, who was the shooter and former student of Sandy Hook Elementary School, had been able to give and receive nurturing, healing love, the tragedy would never have happened.”
Surrounded by therapists and mental-health professionals who were helping Newtown families, Lewis kept repeating the phrase. She asked them: “I have to get that message into schools. How do I do that?” One therapist directed her to Chris Kukk, a professor at Western Connecticut State University, who had written a book about compassion. Lewis met with him, asking him the same question. “He said, “It’s called social and emotional learning. It’s been around for a long time,’” she remembers. “I started researching it. My eyes were opened.”
Lewis didn’t return to her job. She says she pulled herself together for the sake of her older son, then 12, and spent her free hours learning more about social and emotional learning, often referred to as SEL. She discovered the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning, a Chicago nonprofit formed in 1994 that works with educators, nonprofits and other partners to get SEL into schools, from pre-K through high school.
CASEL’s most recent research, in conjunction with University of Illinois at Chicago, Loyola University and the University of British Columbia, found that students exposed to SEL consistently display more positive social behaviors (like empathy, for instance) and less emotional distress than their peers. They report better test scores, less drug use and fewer conduct problems, according to a 2017 analysis of about 100,000 students.
“When we started, nobody had any idea what SEL does,” says Hank Resnik, senior advisor for communications at CASEL. The program first came about after the publication of Daniel Goleman’s best-seller Emotional Intelligence in 1995. As school safety has become more top of mind, “we have seen great growth in the field and increasingly people knowing how to implement SEL effectively.”
For Lewis, focusing on education as a way to stem the violence makes more sense than say, focusing on gun control. Other organizations — such as Sandy Hook Promise, founded by family members who lost loved ones at the school — push for gun-safety reforms. Lewis says she understand both sides of the gun-control argument, those who fear guns, and those who fear the curtailment of 2nd Amendment rights. “I don’t want to be coming at the solution from a point of fear,” she says. “I want to be coming at it from a point of love. Love transcends fear every single time.”
Overcoming Negative Thoughts
Five and a half years ago, as she researched SEL, Lewis found that the majority of school districts didn’t have it and many educators hadn’t heard of it. Some simply didn’t want to incorporate it, preferring the status quo. “My job became to spread awareness of social emotional learning, to teach about the scientifically researched benefits,” she says, “and then to provide a program that was comprehensive in nature.”
She worked with Kukk and other educators to create an online SEL curriculum that could be downloaded for various age levels. It contains the five core components of traditional SEL — self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, responsible decision-making — plus a new emphasis on “choosing love,” as Lewis puts it.
“Ours specifically focuses on the power of presence, and the power of our thoughts in general,” she says, adding that adults have an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts a day, and 70 percent to 80 percent are negative. “We have a proclivity toward negative thinking,” she says, going back to prehistoric times, when early people faced ever-present dangers. Her organization’s curriculum attempts to counter that by teaching kids how to overcome negative thinking through kindness, forgiveness and compassion.
Lisa A. Colapietro, an English teacher in East Greenville, Pennsylvania, who has introduced the Choose Love curriculum to her middle-school students at Upper Perkiomen School District, recently posted about the experience on LinkedIn. Students in the “tween” years are in dire need of social-emotional instruction, she says, as they work toward independence while grappling with puberty. It’s also a time when bullying, depression and thoughts of suicide can occur. “There is no greater gift than empowering students with the tools and realization that they can choose love over hate,” she says.
A Matter of Life and Death
Today, Lewis spends much of her time traveling across the nation to talk to schools and communities about the importance of SEL. She doesn’t take vacations. “This is all I do,” she tells me. “I’ve been to 6 states in the last 10 days.” While she is intense — during conversations, she frequently interjects scientific findings and other research about SEL — she is friendly and remarkably upbeat.
Her relatability might be her best advantage as she tries to sell educators on the Choose Love curriculum, which is available for free. “I am not an academic standing in front of them. I’m a mom,” she says. “For me, it’s life and death. I know better than anyone. I know we” — she pauses to repeat the word — “we are responsible for every child’s safety.” And with each shooting, she believes it becomes more critical to provide a solution. “Every time it happens I am heart broken,” she says.
To date, the curriculum has been downloaded by nearly 20,000 educators, reaching an estimated 1.5 million children. In July, the state of New Hampshire announced it would include the Choose Love program in its schools. Looking ahead, Lewis hopes to reach even more students by partnering with other organizations, such as Rachel’s Challenge, that already have relationships with schools. That particular nonprofit works to reduce violence and was founded by the parents of Rachel Scott, the first student killed in the Columbine High School shooting in 1999.
Reflecting on Jesse’s chalkboard message, Lewis believes her son may have had a spiritual awareness that he wouldn’t live a very long life. The word “nurturing” isn’t in most 6-year-olds’ vocabulary, and was spelled phonetically as “norturting.”
“He wanted to leave a message of comfort for his family and friends,” Lewis says. “That’s my inspiration. That’s the message that I spread every single day since.”
Scarlett: Forgiveness, in my case it’s really the only way for me to take my personal power back, for me to not allow the man who viciously and brutally murdered my son and all the rest to have control over my thoughts.
CARD: Scarlett Lewis – Founder + CEO – Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement – Newtown, Conn.
Scarlett: The Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement is a program that teaches everyone to thoughtfully respond in any situation by choosing love. Because when we choose love in our responses we take our personal power back, and we make the world a better place.
TEXT: Scarlett lives on a small farm in Connecticut.
TEXT: For most of her career, she worked in the municipal bond business.
Scarlett: I've literally almost always been a single mom raising two boys on a farm by myself.
TEXT: JT was born in 2000. Jesse in 2006.
Scarlett: I had a long commute, so Jesse was at school a lot. He loved school. He had a fun time there. He was very outgoing. He was very, he was a loud kid and had a good time and he was very confident in himself, and he did well.
TEXT: In 2012 Jesse was in 1st grade at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
TEXT: On December 14, he went to school as usual.
Scarlett: I was at work. One of my friends said, "There's been a shooting in Sandy Hook." I decided to go to the school. I didn't really get worried, really worried, believe it or not, until I got close to the school. There were people running and yelling, and there were helicopters and military men and first responders all over the place, people with megaphones. And I was like, "Oh my god this is a big deal," and—(crying). Sorry. Sometimes I talk about it and I don't cry, sometimes I do.
TEXT: Jesse was one of 20 young children and 6 adults murdered by a former student, Adam Lanza.
Scarlett: I came home to get Jesse's clothes for the funeral, and saw a message that Jesse had written sometime shortly before he died on our kitchen chalkboard. He wrote three words, “Nurturing, healing, love.” And it just stopped me right in my tracks.
Sue (from tape): It’s amazing he even knew the word “nurturing.”
Scarlett: It is amazing. People ask me, "Did you walk around saying nurturing, healing, love?" I laugh because I say, "No. I was a single mom with a full-time job. Those three words never came out of my mouth unfortunately."
TEXT: Scarlett talked about Jesse’s words with the mental health professionals helping families in Newtown.
TEXT: They told her about SEL — social and emotional learning.
Scarlett: When we think about school safety we think about active shooter protocol, arming or not arming school resource officers. But none of that addresses the cause of why a child will go into a school and want to harm themselves or someone else.
TEXT: With the help of educators, Scarlett developed programs to teach SEL.
Scarlett: Teaching kids how to connect with each other, how to have healthy relationships, how to be resilient for the things that we know are going to come in life, how to express emotions in a healthy way, how to manage conflict.
TEXT: In 2013 Scarlett set up the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement as a nonprofit.
Scarlett: The formula starts with courage because courage underlies all the others. Our next character value is gratitude.
TEXT: Teachers can download the lesson plans for Pre-K through 12th grade for free.
Scarlett: Healing means forgiveness and forgiveness is so vitally important.
TEXT: The lessons have reached an estimated 1.5 million children across the country.
SOT: How does anger feel in your body?
-How does it feel? How does it feel?
-I want to get rid of it!
TEXT: We Choose Love is part of New Hampshire’s statewide school safety program.
Scarlett: Our final character value is compassion in action. The action component, which is when you actively do something to help ease that pain.
SOT: People are starting to come to this realization because nothing else works.
TEXT: Scarlett has one full-time and six part-time staff.
Scarlett: I never experienced a lot of anger toward Adam Lanza. He must have been in a tremendous amount of pain. If he had been able to give and receive nurturing, healing, love, the tragedy would never have happened.
Scarlett: I never went back to work. I had to spend the rest of my life making sure that this didn’t happen again. I do everything that I can to spread the message that Jesse left and make the world a better place.
Posted: December 13, 2018