Compassion seen as remedy for ‘epidemic of anger’ in schools

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SEATTLE — Anyone who sets foot in a school has seen them — the kids everyone picks on. The ones with poor hygiene, who throw tantrums or chairs. The children who seem like too much trouble.

If Scarlett Lewis had her way, each would be embraced.

Less than two years ago Lewis’ son Jesse, 6, was among the 20 children murdered by Adam Lanza in Connecticut’s Sandy Hook school massacre, the bloodiest in America’s history. On Tuesday, she spoke to Seattle educators not about gun control, but compassion.

“I know that the shooter did not wake up December 14, 2012, on the wrong side of the bed,” Lewis told a packed auditorium at Cleveland High School to kick off Seattle’s first Compassionate Schools Conference.

“It took a lifetime of anger and frustration and loneliness and could have been stopped. I know that if Adam had been given a compassionate education, and been shown compassion, Sandy Hook would not have happened.”

Yet in the 20 months since Lewis, 46, lost her youngest child there have been dozens of new school shootings, at least 15 of them massacres similar to Sandy Hook.

“There is an epidemic of anger out there,” Lewis said, picturing Lanza as a small boy, picked on by peers, with a head full of loneliness and rage.

Her address was followed with a day of workshops exploring not merely the social but also the academic benefits of compassionate schools, places where the staff incorporate students’ socio-emotional needs into daily lessons and study the effects of trauma on childhood learning.

Tacoma’s Manitou Park Elementary, for example, has seen test scores soar since adults began teaching children to care about one another, said Principal Mary Wilson.

That notion held particular resonance for Lily Ulmer, a fourth-grade teacher in Seattle, who was struck by discussion of a Harvard survey that found 80 percent of middle- and high-school students rated personal achievement over caring for others — and their own happiness.

“That was alarming to me,” Ulmer said. “We need to start making changes, all the way down to kindergarten.”

“There are issues happening across America that make this timely,” agreed Steve Pitkin, a drug and alcohol counselor in the Lake Stevens School District, who believes the compassion movement will take root.

“Sure, there’s always going to be an individual here or there who could get in the way, but the time is right for this idea,” Pitkin said.

Washington state’s education office in Olympia is spearheading a Compassionate Schools Initiative and says several schools have already signed on.

Seattle School Board President Sharon Peaslee expressed support, suggesting that the push for ever more standardized testing was undercutting compassionate education.

“The most important thing we can do for our students is make our schools work for them — not for us, not for the data-collectors, but for our children,” she said.

Conference organizers were aware that they might be perceived as “kum-ba-yah or shallow,” as host John Hale put it. Indeed, state officials said they have heard from parents who fear compassionate education will teach children to become victims.

But Lewis, who received a standing ovation after her remarks, might be seen as a living repudiation of that idea.

“Boldly go out and express the message of compassion,” she told the crowd, adding later that — in her heart, at least — Adam Lanza has been forgiven.

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