Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes
MIDVALE — Finding solutions to America's school shooting crisis is a daunting proposition. But a program that is flourishing in Utah schools offers hope.
Hope Squads create a culture that supports students who are struggling and gives everyone a voice.
Right now, there are Hope Squads in more than 360 Utah schools. They cannot stop school shootings, but Hope Squads work with schools to create an environment in which that is less likely.
"We go into our classes and we talk about these things," said Munashe Tanjani, a junior at Hillcrest High School and member of the Hope Squad. "We say, 'Hey, are you struggling? What's going on? Here are some methods that you can use.'"
"We strap hope to our bodies," she said, pointing to her Hope4Utah T-shirt. "And we say we are advocates for hope, and we are here for you and we see you. That can be the one thing that somebody needs to save their life, to change their life."
Hope4Utah is focused on suicide prevention and intervention. But Hope Squads also prioritize mental health and creating an environment of inclusivity in which all students feel valued and supported.
"So that students, when they come here, they know that they're important, that they are seen, they're welcome, and they're safe at our school," said Lisa Gardner, a Hillcrest High School counselor and Hope Squad adviser.
Gardner started the program at Hillcrest seven years ago.
Hope Squad members are trained to help fellow students, or even family members, when they're struggling and need support. In class, they teach peers stress management, healthy living, and how to recognize when a person needs help or adult intervention.
"We just want the students to be kind and helpful," Gardner said. "The more that we're able to be in the classroom and encourage our students to be this way, then hopefully, we can ultimately have a culture in our school where all students feel welcomed and important."
Earlier this year, when rumors of trouble spread through school, Tanjani discovered the true value of the Hope Squads.
"I got so many messages from people: 'Hey, you're on the Hope Squad, right? There's this thing that I'm seeing around, have you seen this?' They send me the pictures, and I went to my counselors."
Nobody brushed off the warning signs, she said, even though no trouble materialized. Concerned students reached out to members of the Hope Squad.
"It was beautiful to see that, as an entire school, we banded together to solve the problem and figure out what was happening, as opposed to ignoring it and then something terrible happening."
When students heard about the shooting this week, they supported each other.
"Consoling each other, like, 'This happened, but I'm here for you,'" Tanjani said.
At Hillcrest, Hope4Utah has helped break down the stigma of asking for help.
"We can solve a lot of problems if we just talk to each other," Tanjani said.
The students involved in Hope Squad are learning lessons for life.
"I've had Hope Squad students that have graduated, gone off to college, and have come back and said, 'I've utilized the information that I learned while being on Hope Squad,'" Gardner said.
Click here for more information about Hope Squads.