Sandy Hook Promise, a national nonprofit organization that aims to prevent violence in schools, releases a public service announcement every year.
And this one is no laughing matter.
In this year's “Just Joking” PSA, directed by the Oscar-nominated and Emmy Award-winning Henry-Alex Rubin, well-known comedians perform their act in front of live audiences. They deliver lines that the audience thinks are jokes ... but later learn that every line is a real threat made by a school shooter.
“First day of school. Last day of your lives.”
Billy Eichner delivers these words for maximum comic effect, but they were originally composed by a 15-year-old gunman who shot a special-needs student in the cafeteria of Baltimore’s Perry Hall High School.
The shooter typed those sentences on his Facebook page, openly declaring his intentions. And he’s not the only school shooter to do so.
Nicole Hockley, the co-founder and CEO of Sandy Hook Promise who lost her youngest son, Dylan, at Sandy Hook Elementary, told TODAY.com why this particular campaign is so important.
"Over the years, we've heard that one of the barriers to saying something for a lot of young people today is that they think the person isn't serious. They say if they were putting it on social media, they didn't really mean it," Hockley said. "A threat isn't a joke. A threat is something that needs to be taken seriously."
Speaking up and speaking out
In a JAMA Network study of 170 mass shooting perpetrators, almost half leaked their plans to someone before taking action. The Sage Journal examined the 15 most deadly public mass shootings in the United States from March 1998 to February 2018 and found that 80% of shooters leaked their interest in mass killing.
If someone is presenting a warning sign, Hockley said, "they're probably not just joking."
In reaching out to comedians to participate in the campaign, Hockley said she had an "overwhelming response" from celebrities who wanted to participate. Some comedians added material to their already scheduled stage shows, and in others, special performances were arranged.
In both cases, the audiences were unaware of the content they would be receiving, and you can see their faces grow sober as they realize that the comedians are performing material outside of their usual routines.
The "genuine reaction and authenticity" of the audience truly helps the message get through to viewers, Hockley said.
Starting the conversation
Sandy Hook Promise developed a "Know the Signs" program to teach youth and adults how to prevent school violence, shootings and other harmful acts. It has been implemented in 26,000 schools across the country.
The program has helped avert at least 15 credible planned school shooting attacks, prevented 185 attempts of violence with a weapon and saved more than 500 lives through crisis intervention, according to the organization's press release.
They hope that watching this PSA will open the door to parents talking to their kids about the danger of school violence.
"It's never too early to start having this conversation," Hockley said.
Though you may not necessarily talk to a kindergartener about school shootings specifically, she said, parents can talk about how to create connection, stand up for someone or avoid bullying. They can create an environment in which children feel comfortable talking to them about things that may feel difficult or troubling.
Hockley pointed out that whether they consciously realize it or not, even younger elementary school children are exposed to this conversation through lockdown drills or active shooter drills at school.
"One of the ways we can show our love for our children is to allay their fears," Hockley said. "Violence knows no age barrier."