This article will be a bit more personal than most.
I’m sorry about that. School shootings hit home for me.
I’m a school psychologist. I can help to support any student in the school where I work, but I spend most of my time with the students who need the most help.
I’m also on the school’s crisis team. If there is any act of violence where I work then I will be involved in the response.
Mary Sherlach was the school psychologist at Sandy Hook Elementary School. She died while charging the shooter, hoping to stop him, at least buying time for the teachers to hide their students. I tell teachers not to be heroes, but to me, Mary was a hero and I have incredible respect for what she did.
I’m also a disaster mental health volunteer with three agencies. I served on Hurricane Katrina. I could get a call asking me to help in any place that experienced a major violent act.
On December 14, I was in a training to improve my skills in this role. That’s where I was when I learned of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.
If that causes you to infer a certain political persuasion then you should also know that I am a former competitive shooter. I was last at the range about three weeks ago and I’m competent with a pistol.
I wouldn’t want to give up any firearm that I might happen to own.
So, you see, school shootings weigh heavily on my mind. I’ve been following the news closely for the last week.
If I had a solution, if there were something guaranteed to prevent another incident like the one in Newtown, then I would scream it from the mountains, post it everywhere, push it as though my life depended on it.
It actually could.
I have a few ideas.
There is a lot of talk about arming teachers. Please, if you are in charge and considering this, I beg you not to do it.
1. Guns get lost and stolen, even by police – arm teachers and eventually, a kid will find or steal a gun.
2. Teachers become targets – how hard it is for a student to figure out who is armed? Ms. Smith never used to bring her purse to class – now she does and she never puts it down. Mr. Jones wears a jacket and keeps it buttoned, even when it’s hot, even when he’s dripping sweat.
In training, I’ve seen notes left by thwarted shooters who planned to kill the school police officer first. The first shots will always be a surprise. Any student could come in with a rusty half-loaded revolver, kill an armed teacher, take that teacher’s modern and maintained gun and bullets, and go on a spree with a better weapon.
3. A gun creates a duty to shoot – many teachers form supportive, informal counseling relationships with troubled students. What if that’s what Mr. Jones does for Bobby? Is Mr. Jones going to be able to kill Bobby if Bobby comes in shooting? If not then see #2.
4. Shooting the wrong student – many troubled students, the kind suspected of being potential shooters, have poor relationships with adults. They get locked into personality conflicts with teachers.
What if Mr. Jones and Bobby have that kind of history, and Mr. Jones suspects that Bobby could snap, and then Mr. Jones hears a crash in the hallway and sees Bobby running toward Mr. Jones with a black object in his hands, so Mr. Jones kills Bobby? It turns out that another student’s shop project dropped and Bobby was just running with his cell phone – no initial emergency but now there is one, a dead student, killed by accident.
The National Rifle Association wants to put armed guards into every school in America. This doesn’t surprise me.
Most of the members of the NRA are decent people who are scared of gun violence, too, but the NRA advocates for the gun industry, then for owners (i.e. customers).
There are about 119,000 schools in America. If it cost $1,000.00 to arm and equip each guard, which it easily could, then with one guard per school (many would need more), the NRA’s proposal would mean $119 million in income for the gun industry.
As it is, major incidents like the one in Newtown cause a jump in gun sales because people are scared for their own safety.
If you go into your local gun store today, you can’t buy or even order a rifle like the one used in that shooting because the NRA also has owners convinced that liberal politicians, aka “gun-grabbers,” are going to ban the sale of similar weapons and then go house-to-house confiscating ones already owned by citizens. Rifles like the one used in Newtown are sold out indefinitely.
Let me close with a few suggestions for what Pennsylvania might reasonably do to prevent another incident like the one in Newtown, Connecticut. I’m not offering promises or guarantees, but what if we:
1. Update the Mental Health Procedures Act of 1976, which regulates psychiatric hospital admissions, to include the more-progressive “need for treatment” standard instead of the dire “clear and present danger” standard now in use for involuntary admissions?
2. Update our concealed-carry statutes to copy some of the best ideas from Delaware (mandatory training in gun handling and safety and conflict de-escalation) and New York State (a permit to buy a handgun is also a permit to carry one)?
As it stands right now, you can get a permit for concealed carry, which is popular among gun enthusiasts, without knowing how to handle a gun safely, and the standard for eligibility to simply buy a gun is lower than the one for legal concealed carry.
3. Create a permit similar to that for concealed-carry, with the same standards, necessary to buy “assault rifles?”
Whatever we do, we have to do something. The odds of any particular school experiencing a shooting are incredibly low – Dr. Dewey Cornell at the University of Virginia estimates that a school will have one student-perpetrated murder every 13,870 years – – but one is bad enough and, sure enough, another mass-murder at a school is coming.
I’m a psychologist and an educator and I love my job, but I don’t want to die there.