Murphy Teen is Set on a Solution
People have assigned the terms “Save our Ship” and “Save our Souls” to the S.O.S. distress signal. The S.O.S. signal is an international code signal of extreme distress and an urgent plea for help. Knowing this information lends great depth to the already serious nature of the organization founded by Murphy resident, 15-year-old Toni Dower at McMillen High School. Dower founded S.O.S., which means Students on Safety, in Feb. of this year.
Dower said she started S.O.S. with the help of other students who shared the same passion that of “…encouraging politically neutral community action addressing gun violence on school campuses.” She said the other students who helped form S.O.S. “…found common ground in our frustration towards the attacking and often polarizing tactics of other student activists, and despite our different social and political backgrounds, joined together to make a positive change in our school.”
Before entering the public school system as a seventh grader, Dower was homeschooled. She said her first impression of public school was that there were so many people at the school. She recalls feeling anxious and alone. “She was shocked at the level of cruelty and anger among student interactions.” (studentsonsafety.org) She was aware of the statistics of how many students deal with mental illness. She heard the prevalent reports of students, after a school shooting, saying “I never thought this would happen at my school.” She saw many students crying and no one was addressing the issues. She said even the most outwardly successful students were dealing with inner demons. All of these observations and experiences were catalysts for Dower to found S.O.S. with the goal, “…not only to encourage kindness and empathy but to end the unnecessary bureaucracy and controversial debate surrounding student safety. Most of all, she hopes to bridge the gap between the two divided parties and unite all students to fight for safer campuses.” Dower said, “We need to ask ourselves, ‘What are you doing as a student, teacher, parent to make sure this (gun violence) doesn’t happen?’”
With an effort to alleviate an underlying cause of gun violence, S.O.S. has completed projects at McMillen H.S. focused on mental illness. They opened an advice column run by and for students. Four members of S.O.S. were chosen to be the advice columnists. These four students represent a variety of student groups. They compile their answers into one response. If a dangerous situation presents itself via the advice column, action will be taken to get the student the help they need. Examples of requests thus far pertain to friendships, grades, getting involved and relationships. They have also created and displayed at McMillen posters regarding student issues such as depression, anxiety, sexual assault, dating violence and child abuse. These posters include hotlines to professional organizations to insure students have resources to get help. There are additional projects planned before the end of this school year. Dower hopes that the more amplified student voices are, the more the administration will listen, which will result in a decrease of negative incidents occurring in Murphy.
Regarding what she believes to be the top problems students face at McMillen, Dower said, “Many students are from different backgrounds and they are trying to categorize themselves. Some try to put on the face that they don’t have any problems, when we all know that is not true.” She adds, “Interaction with counselors is ineffective. I’m not saying they are not trying, but we need more counselors who are focused on how students are doing, not on preparing students’ class schedules. We need to make sure counselors are trained to be counselors.”
S.O.S. has written a petition for increased funding for school counselors and the creation of a committee to address school shootings and other potential threats to student safety in Plano ISD. She believes an effective committee to address these concerns will be comprised of PISD parents who research what has been implemented in other schools and see what has been successful. She feels an individualized security program must be created for each school, meeting the needs of each campus.
Dower started S.O.S. because she cares about McMillen H.S. and Murphy. However, she thought to herself, “I can do better and encourage others to make a positive change.” She knows these problems exist nationwide so she broadened her horizons and has registered 20 chapters in 11 different states. S.O.S. is an approved 501(c)3 non-profit organization.
Her one year goal is that each chapter is up and running and has started the same projects that have occurred at McMillen. Her five year goals are to make sure that leadership is in place to keep S.O.S. active in many communities.
It surprised Dower as to how much paperwork is required to start this type of organization and how technical the paperwork would be.
Regarding when she will know S.O.S. has been successful, Dower said, “If a kid is struggling, they know they can come to me for help. A lot of kids are kind and will say, ‘I see you are crying. What’s wrong?’ But, they don’t know when to go to an adult for help. I want them to be mature, understand the situation and know how to get that kid help.”
S.O.S. meets at McMillen twice a month during lunch. The staff sponsor is Erin Britten. Approximately 45 McMillen students attend these meetings. McMillen students interested in joining S.O.S. should go to studentsonsafety.org. This is also where the advice column is accessed. If you are a mental health professional and are interested in providing your services to S.O.S., you can also reach them at the same website.