He lost his son at Sandy Hook—now he wants you to know the warning signs

November 6, 2018 by Dennis Thompson, Healthday Reporter
Daniel and Mark Barden

As Mark Barden let go of the hand of his young son, Daniel, and the boy boarded the bus for school on the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, he had no idea it would be the last time he would see his child alive.

Hours later, the 7-year-old lost his life in the horrific mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Twenty children and six adults were killed by a mentally disturbed 20-year-old who then killed himself.

Six years later, Barden is working to prevent future horrors like the one that claimed his son, saying such tragedies are preventable if one knows the warning signs.

His group, Sandy Hook Promise, has trained more than 3.5 million youth and adults to recognize and respond to signs that a person is at risk for harming either themselves or others.

"Through that work, we've been able to prevent numerous and dozens of suicides," Barden said.

Barden will present his program at the American Academy of Pediatrics' annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., this week.

"Think about what happened in the tragedy in Newtown, where this individual had been giving off warning signs for over a year-and-a-half, had been planning that event for over a year-and-a-half," Barden said. "I lie awake thinking about all the ways this could have been prevented."

Know the Warning Signs

Four out of five school shooters told someone about their violent plans prior to the event, according to Sandy Hook Promise.

Red flags that someone could be planning to harm themselves or others, according to the program, include:


  • A strong fascination or obsession with firearms or previous mass shootings.
  • Excessive over-reactions to minor offenses, which can signal a lack of ability to self-regulate emotions or control anger.
  • Trouble with their education, including a sudden drop in grades or gestures of violence toward school.
  • Feelings of being picked on or persecuted by others.
  • Extreme feelings of isolation or withdrawal.
  • Bragging about access to firearms.
  • Making overt threats of violence.
  • Talking about or making plans for suicide.

Suicidal thoughts and feelings are a key part of these mass shootings, said Dr. Robert Sege, a pediatrician with the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center, in Boston.

"Many of these mass tragedy events have a suicidal element for the perpetrator," said Sege, who co-authored the AAP's firearms policy statement. "Look out for the signs of suicide—people who stop making plans for the future, who talk about dying, who start giving away things because they won't need them anymore. Most often people who attempt suicide have given very broad hints to people in advance."

All of these warning signs are part of a threat-assessment model originally developed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the aftermath of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, which Sandy Hook Promise has adapted for elementary schools, Barden said.

Speak Up

The signs are taught in "Say Something," a Sandy Hook Promise program for middle and high school students that focuses largely on , Barden said.

"We have more case studies than I'd want to admit of folks who have ended up taking their life who had been talking about it on social media and left hundreds of social media impressions that everybody in their network had seen, and didn't know what to do, or didn't think it was serious, or thought they were looking for attention and didn't take action," Barden said.

A program for younger children, "Start With Hello," discusses how to recognize loners and reach out to them.

"We teach them how to tell the difference between healthy alone time and someone who is constantly marginalized," Barden said. "We teach them how to reach out to those folks in fun and comfortable ways."

The perpetrator of the Newtown tragedy, Adam Lanza, was chronically isolated, Barden noted.

"Another thing that keeps me up at night is maybe one more conversation with someone like my little Daniel, who used to reach out to kids, could have changed that entire story," Barden said.

Children who see the warning signs are encouraged to reach out to a trusted adult, he explained.

'Red Flag' Laws Save Lives

Sege said that adults can then contact their school's security officer. They also should see if they live in a state with a "red flag law," in which police can remove firearms from a person thought to be of imminent danger to themselves or others.

"The first state to enact a red flag law was Connecticut, and they've been able to show a reduction in suicide in Connecticut," Sege said. "At several of the recent mass shootings, there have been people who said they were worried about this person and they knew they had access to military-style weapons."

Sandy Hook Promise also has started an anonymous tip line available at 1-844-5-SAYNOW or www.saysomething.net.

The tips are referred to crisis centers staffed by trained professionals, Barden said.

"They don't just throw it over the wall to law enforcement. They know how to triage information and act appropriately," he said.

"In our trainings, we acknowledge that any one of these in a random situation certainly may not be a cause for concern, but if there's anything that causes concern it's better to have an unfounded tip than the other way around," Barden said. "Less than 1 percent of the tips that go to the call center are going to be anything serious or life-threatening, but for the 1 percent that might be, it's well worth it."

Explore further: What to do when someone is suicidal

More information: Mark Barden, founder and managing director, Sandy Hook Promise; Robert Sege, M,D., Ph.D., pediatrician, Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center, Boston

Visit Sandy Hook Promise for more about the programs.

Related Stories

What to do when someone is suicidal

June 9, 2018
The U.S. suicide rate is increasing in almost every state, according a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide is listed as a leading cause of death in the report, and more than half the ...

Mental health care worries linger 5 years after Sandy Hook

December 13, 2017
Anguished mothers with mentally ill children have sought out Liza Long for help ever since she wrote an essay, "I am Adam Lanza's Mother," comparing experiences with her son to the emotionally troubled 20-year-old who carried ...

After another shooting tragedy, 'stop the bleed' kits urged for schools

February 16, 2018
(HealthDay)—Some of the 17 people killed Wednesday in the senseless Florida school shooting might have survived if their bleeding could have been stopped in time, experts say.

Red flag laws may prevent more suicides than mass shootings

April 12, 2018
Before her brother took his own life, Mary Miller-Strobel said she and her father begged every store in town that sold firearms to turn him away.

Recommended for you

Trying to get people to agree? Skip the French restaurant and go out for Chinese food

December 11, 2018
Here's a new negotiating tactic: enjoy a family-style meal with your counterpart before making your opening bid.

What social stress in monkeys can tell us about human health

December 11, 2018
Research in recent years has linked a person's physical or social environment to their well-being. Stress wears down the body and compromises the immune system, leaving a person more vulnerable to illnesses and other conditions. ...

The richer the reward, the faster you'll likely move to reach it, study shows

December 11, 2018
If you are wondering how long you personally are willing to stand in line to buy that hot new holiday gift, scientists at Johns Hopkins Medicine say the answer may be found in the biological rules governing how animals typically ...

Receiving genetic information can change risk

December 11, 2018
Millions of people in the United States alone have submitted their DNA for analysis and received information that not only predicts their risk for disease but, it turns out, in some cases might also have influenced that risk, ...

Using neurofeedback to prevent PTSD in soldiers

December 11, 2018
A team of researchers from Israel, the U.S. and the U.K. has found that using neurofeedback could prevent soldiers from experiencing PTSD after engaging in emotionally difficult situations. In their paper published in the ...

You make decisions quicker and based on less information than you think

December 11, 2018
We live in an age of information. In theory, we can learn everything about anyone or anything at the touch of a button. All this information should allow us to make super-informed, data-driven decisions all the time.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.