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Fox News
Fox News
29 Apr 2023


Social worker and school shooting survivor Jerry Sparby claimed he has developed a classroom method that keeps socially awkward and "invisible" students from feeling isolated, bullied, and less inclined to ever commit horrific school shootings.

Sparby, a counselor, teacher and former principal at Rocori Elementary in Cold Spring, Minnesota, told Fox News Digital that a shooting committed by one of his former students in his school district in 2003 inspired him to dedicate his life to finding ways to help young students with their mental health issues. 

Sparby believes that the method he has developed based upon years of teaching experience and student counseling was the best way to prevent these shootings from happening. 

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Jerry Sparby in front of school

Former educator and school shooting survivor Jerry Sparby has dedicated his life to help kids who have been struggling with poor mental health. (Photo by Jerry Sparby/Permitted for use by Fox News Digital)

Sparby founded multiple non-profits and classroom programs, most notable among them a revolutionary social development and "mental wellness" program called "HuddLUp." With the program and its corresponding app, educators can make sure their classrooms are aimed at fostering the connectedness of children to their communities by encouraging physical play, proper breathing, and better relationship building. 

HuddLUp’s website claims that it is founded around "3 beliefs:" 1. It’s not only ok to talk about mental wellness, it should be encouraged. 2. Physical presence, touch, and proper breathing are foundational to a healthy mind. 3. We can all learn from each other, because everybody has something valuable to offer." 

Sparby claimed that the results he has seen after implementing the program in hundreds of classrooms show that his method is "eliminating bullying" and fostering a better sense of community among students.

In an interview with Fox, Sparby recounted how conversations with the student that committed the shooting, and being present at the death of one of the shooter’s victims in the hospital, prompted him to dive into social work and develop this program to help kids avoid this terrible path.

Speaking of his conversation with the shooter, Sparby said, "One of the things Jason asked me, he said, ‘Mr. Sparby, if you do anything with the rest of your life, will you make sure that other people don’t do what I’ve done today?’ And so I made the commitment, not only to Jason, to myself."

Sparby mentioned being present when the parents of Seth, a child on life support due to his injuries from the 2003 shooting, decided to turn off the machine and allow their son to pass rather than be on it for the rest of his life. "So we went through that event with them, which not only was life-changing for me, being part of that family in that moment of Seth passing," he said, adding, "But I decided I was going to do everything I could."

Sparby told the outlet that the focus needs to be on reaching out and working with "invisible" kids – those he sees as being potential school shooters – to help them feel better connected to their community, so they’re not being isolated and bullied and thus prone to anti-social behavior.

According to the counselor, the shooter told him that during elementary school recess he "was hiding on the playground." He said, "I didn’t want anybody to know I didn’t have friends because if they did, they would pick on me. And so I just kept myself hidden up on the playground."

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Former Minnesota school district principal Jerry Sparby has developed a wellness method for classrooms that reduces the amount of social awkward or "invisible" kids that populate them. (Photo by Jerry Sparby/Permitted for use by Fox News Digital)

Sparby then claimed, "After he told me that, I went back to school, and I realized it wasn’t just Jason, I had kids every recess period that were doing the same thing. They were hiding and they didn’t want others to know they didn’t have any friends."

After pondering these revelations, Sparby said he got his degree in counseling and started working to help these "invisible" and "intense" kids. 

He claimed, "When I left the school district, I started working with intense kids. My goal was to work with kids who were potential shooters or had shot somebody."

Eventually the counselor claimed he was traveling all over the country to hear from and work with kids who were socially awkward, autistic, and even suicidal. After acquiring experience, Sparby began teaching teacher development, showing "teacher candidates how to build classroom communities, where every kid is cared for and that there are no invisible kids."

The counselor reiterated that throughout his study and work he constantly came across these "invisible kids." 

"The profile that showed up in every one of the kids I work with, they were the invisible kids," he said, adding, "They were socially awkward. They just didn’t know how to get connected with the others."

He continued, "And having been in literally thousands of classrooms over the years, they’re in every classroom. There’s three or four kids in every classroom."

Continuous encounters with these kids helped the counselor focus his mission. He said, "And so I decided that’s where my target needed to be. [It] was, how do we eliminate those invisible kids? How do we help teachers build classroom communities where all kids are connected and all kids sense and feel each other?"

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Robb Elementary School memorial in Uvalde, Texas

People visit a memorial at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Thursday, June 2, to pay their respects to the victims killed the school shooting. (AP/Jae C. Hong)

Sparby noted through over time and experimentation, he found that engaging student’s physicality with play and proper breathing exercises, along with allowing them to be open about their feelings, really fostered a stronger sense of community among children at home and in the classroom. 

In terms of incorporating physical touch in the classroom, Sparby described how he and the teachers working with him would invite students to participate in little games that involve contact among them. He said, "Whatever game we play there is some touch. And it’s minimal. It’s appropriate. We’re very careful in how we do that."

He justified the practice saying, "But it’s the fact that every kid in the classroom’s been touched and that they sense and feel what the other person feels like subconsciously. And then they can let that go and just be in the class."

Sparby added, "It’s that unknown in what the other kid is feeling or not feeling that messes with people’s minds." He noted that when he initially proposed these games in class, some students would sit out, yet soon all kids would volunteer to get involved after several sessions. 

In terms of breathing, Sparby claimed, "One of the things I experienced in these classrooms is kids don’t listen to each other, kids can’t sense and feel each other, and I believe it’s due to the lack of oxygen."

He explained, "And so when you don’t have enough oxygen in your system, basically, you don’t feel. So they don’t have this emotional regulation. They’re not able to sense and feel each other. And so they talk at each other but nobody’s listening."

He proposed a solution, saying, "So what we decided was, if we can get them oxygenated, and get more of their whole body integrated, maybe then, not only playing games with them, but breathing, we can make this [connectedness] happen." His lessons for teachers have incorporated breathing exercises, such as ways they can help their students breathe from their diaphragms.

The educator and counselor claimed that intentional and engaging practices like what he described really do make a difference and foster the connectedness between students. It became the basis for his HuddLUp app. He claimed that after implementing the games and exercises in "over a hundred classrooms," "we’re starting to sense and feel the shift in kids."

He said, "We’re hearing from kids every week we’re there, ‘This is the first year we’re not alone on the playground. I have friends to play with on the playground.’ And so I think what we’re accomplishing is, we’re creating a model that’s eliminating bullying, or reducing the bullying on the playground., because the kids who are isolated and alone are the ones that get bullied."

Sparby added, "Our belief is that we’ve got a wellness model that’s dealing with mental health in a way that’s never been dealt with in America before. And it’s so simple, and people say, ‘It can’t be that simple.’ But it is."

Gabriel Hays is an associate editor for Fox News Digital.