Students at Eagle Rock Junior/Senior High learn that a smile and a simple hello can break down barriers to a classmate’s isolation.

Click on the photo to hear Mark Barden and Nicole Hockley talk about Sandy Hook Promise and the Start With Hello program.

With nearly 100 languages spoken in L.A. Unified, there are just as many ways to say “hello.”

But no matter what the language, a simple greeting can really change someone’s life.

That was the message Thursday at Eagle Rock Junior/Senior High School, where students are working to build and sustain a culture of inclusion and connectedness.

Eagle Rock is one of 15 L.A. Unified schools that is piloting Start With Hello, which underscores the importance of connecting with classmates who may be friendless and alone. The program is sponsored by Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit group founded by Nicole Hockley and Mark Barden, whose first-grade sons were among the 26 people killed in the 2012 shootings at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

“Social isolation, marginalization and rejection – these are growing epidemics within schools across the country, and no one wants to feel alone,” said Hockley, who, with Barden, spoke during an assembly at Eagle Rock.

Students participate in a Start With Hello assembly at Eagle Rock Junior/Senior High School

“The shooter who took the lives of our children was someone who was chronically, socially isolated in that no one reached out to and helped,” Hockley said. “It’s important that everyone knows the power they have within themselves and the tools available to them to ensure that no one is ever left alone.”

Volunteers with Sandy Hook Promise are working this week with administrators, teachers and students at Eagle Rock and 14 other middle and high schools. They will provide training in how to prevent bullying and build a supportive learning environment. Over the next three years, the District will be monitoring activities at the schools to determine the effectiveness of the Start With Hello effort.

“Social isolation is a growing epidemic in the United States and within our schools. It is the overwhelming feeling of being left out, lonely or treated like you are invisible,” said Lori Vollandt, the District’s director of Health Education Programs. “Excessive feelings of isolation can be associated with violent and suicidal behavior. Young people who are isolated can become victims of bullying, depression and/or violence. As a result, many pull away from society, struggle with learning and social development, and may choose to hurt themselves or others.”

During Thursday’s assembly at Eagle Rock, students participated in role-playing activities that taught them to recognize and approach students who may be experiencing social or emotional issues.

“I know how it feels to be alone because I was once new to a school and didn’t know anyone” said Argenis Hurtado, 16. “Now, I know how to approach others and make them comfortable. I start by saying hello.”