Sandy Hook mom touts Choose Love program at Middletown school

MIDDLETOWN — Jesse Lewis died a hero Dec. 14, 2012, in the Sandy Hook shooting that killed the 6-year-old and 25 other people in one of the worst mass murders in American history.

He was a kindergartner at the Newtown elementary school who had written “I love you” on the frost settled on his mother’s car window that very morning, his mother Scarlett Lewis said during her visit Friday at Wilbert Snow School. She was there to explain and observe her Choose Love Enrichment Program in action in the classroom.

“I believe that he had a spiritual awareness, and has really given me a platform to spread all of this,” she said. “He wrote ‘nurturing, healing, love [spelled phonetically: Norturting Helinn Love] on the chalkboard.’”

“These words are not in the vernacular of a 6-year-old and were phonetically spelled because Jesse was in first grade and just learning to write,” Lewis wrote.

That became the basis of her program, a downloadable curriculum for parents, educators and children in public schools from pre-K to 12th grade.

Choose Love is a proactive and preventive mental health initiative that cultivates a safe school environment.

It teaches students to identify and manage their emotions and make a conscious choice to be kind in the face of anger, Lewis said.

“It is based on Jesse’s courage — because he saved six of his classmates’ lives before losing his own that day,” Lewis told a group that included state Sen. Len Suzio, state Rep. Matt Lesser, Middletown Schools Superintendent Michael Conner, kindergarten teacher Lorrie Tine, School Readiness Grant Assistant Sheila Daniels and school readiness coordinator Dawn Dubay.

“When the shooter stopped to reload, in a true act of courage and love, Jesse yelled to his classmates to run while he stayed by his teacher’s side,” his mother wrote on the Choose Love website.

Lewis referenced the March 2015 Sandy Hook Commission Report, which explained the circumstances leading to the shooting and how to prevent such a tragedy in the future. The results sparked her to create the initiative, she said.

“They basically said if social/emotional learning had been in the schools, the tragedy might not have happened,” Lewis said. “I erroneously thought everyone in the teaching field was waiting for this report so they could implement these things. They really weren’t.”

That’s when she realized it was time to lead this initiative in Connecticut, said Lewis, who wore a green rubber bracelet with the words “Compassion in Action = Choose Love,” which she distributed to those gathered.

“I think focusing on the student is the right thing,” Suzio said. “You’re focusing on the human aspect. I see both sides of the issue when it comes to guns. The truth is, if people didn’t have these issues, the guns themselves wouldn’t be a problem.”

“It’s been 20 years since Columbine,” Lewis replied. “Let’s address the cause — which is really anger, disconnection, isolation, pain and suffering, lack of resilience. That’s the cause: What’s the solution to that? The solution is teaching kids how to handle themselves and how to overcome.

“Everything starts with courage in our entire life — the courage to be an upstander rather than a bystander, the courage to do the right thing, the courage to tell the truth. Healing means forgiveness, and love is compassion in action,” Lewis said. “It leads you to how you can choose love.”

The Sandy Hook massacre began with an angry thought in Adam Lanza’s head, she added.

“He was a little boy without the tools and skills to handle his anger, which then escalated,” she said. “It’s never a snap. It’s a long, slow steady burn of pain, neglect, isolation, disconnection. There’s no mass murder gene. That means it could have been stopped any step along the way.”

The program was developed by educators, early childhood development specialists, counselors and child psychologists in Connecticut.

After hearing from Lewis and attending a workshop, Tine told participants following the observation she couldn’t wait to implement Choose Love in her classroom.

“It changed everything. It changed my whole life,” she said, pointing to some of the features, like a“tapping solution,” where children start their day in circle formation and “tap out” their stress; meditation and yoga.

Tine viewed the materials as a starting point but she wanted to craft an approach tailored to her 5- and 6-year-old students.

“I went deep and broke the curriculum down even more,” she said, telling the group about a conflict between two boys over building blocks. “One of my little boys, who doesn’t say too much, he walked right over and grabbed the child who was angry. He said ‘come take a walk with me. I see you’re getting angry. Let’s take a deep breath together.”

Now, she added, “I have some behavior problems in my class — but you wouldn’t know who it is.”

Lewis said even with things like shooter protocols, metal detectors, bullet-proof glass and locks on doors, “none of that proactively prevents a student from wanting to harm an educator. The only thing that is to teach them to cultivate relationships, resilience and conflict resolution.”

Even the teachers are asked to keep a journal that describes their feelings and what they do — or should do — when nonproductive thoughts enter their mind.

“I think the allure of your program is it’s a proactive program — you’re starting and you’re helping from the start. You’re setting the tone, you’re planning the seed, you’re helping to nurture children,” Daniels added.

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