State representatives talk about how to avert another tragedy.
By Rep. Thomas P. Murt and Dr. Daniel G. Hartman
Once again, we hear the all-too-familiar refrain, “If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.”
Last Friday, children in Santa Fe, Texas learned how real that statement can be. This time, it happened with weapons that will not feed into the debate over which guns should be allowed and which guns should not. The handgun and shotgun that were used are not the type of assault weapons that have been more commonly used to create terror in schools. They proved just as deadly, however.
As is typically the case, there were signs of concern that were subtle in the moment, but clear in hindsight. The shooter is described as a quiet loner who wore a trench coat to school on the hottest of days. He joked with classmates about school shooters and their affinity for wearing trench coats. A Facebook post of a T-shirt with the words “BORN TO KILL” on it. Another post espousing the virtues of Communist rebellion, Nazi bravery, the suicidal tactics of Japanese kamikaze pilots and the evil of the Knights Templars Baphomet. He was teased and bullied by classmates and members of his high school football team and his football coaches. In retrospect, he fits the picture of a child at risk. A child who can put other children at risk.
Historically, the response to shootings includes a wave of public outrage about the availability of guns and the types of guns that are available. Politicians express their sadness and send their thoughts and prayers to the community affected. Legislation is debated till the spotlight fades, and then proposals are tabled for another day…until another shooting takes place. And then we start over again.
Clear from the current shooting is that the debate over guns and legislation restricting guns will never be enough to prevent another shooting. We must turn the spotlight onto how we manage the environment in which these kids live and go to school. In retrospect, this was a child at risk. At the time of this writing, it is not clear how his home environment may have played into his actions, although a predilection for violent movies and video games has been mentioned. His presentation at school, how he was treated at school, and how he presented himself on social media, indicates a growing discontent that was missed.
What can we do to prevent another Santa Fe? Another Parkland? Another Red Lake? Another Sandy Hook? Another Columbine?
Programs to prevent school violence have been developed, and research has shown that they can be effective in identifying children who may be at risk of hurting themselves or others and getting them help. An example of community coming together is the program developed by some of the parents affected by the Sandy Hook massacre. Sandy Hook Promise’s Know the Signs program is a four-part program offered at no cost to schools and youth organizations that strives to create an environment of accountability and intervention within the school community. The program includes:
• Say Something, which teaches students in grades 6–12 to recognize signs and signals, especially within social media, of an individual who may be a threat to themselves or others and to “Say Something” to a trusted adult before a tragedy takes place.
• Start with Hello, which teaches youth in grades 2–12 how to be more inclusive and connected with one another. “Start with Hello” works to create connectedness and sustain an inclusive culture and community, by minimizing social isolation, marginalization and rejection before an individual chooses to hurt themselves or others.
• Safety Assessment and Intervention, which teaches core multidisciplinary teams within a school district how to identify, assess and respond to threats of violence or at-risk behavior before a tragedy takes place. Safety Assessment and Intervention not only addresses the threat itself, but helps identify and treat the underlying problem in that youth’s life that led to him or her to make the threat.
• Signs of Suicide, which uses an educational curriculum to teach students to recognize the symptoms of depression and suicide. Signs of Suicide can be implemented by existing school personnel within one class period. The program includes training and educational materials for faculty, staff and parents.
We have a choice. Either we come together as a community before tragedy strikes, or we come together after tragedy strikes. Some possible steps include the following:
• Expand behavioral health services in communities, making counseling and psychiatric care more accessible and more affordable.
• Expand communication and coordination between schools and behavioral health providers.
• Enhance behavior health services in schools by embedding outpatient services in the school setting and providing the training to children and staff using programs such as Sandy Hook Promise.
• Advance legislation that will mandate that schools in Pennsylvania participate in programs to limit violence of all kinds in school settings.
On behalf of those lives impacted by a future tragedy, we implore everyone to become active and begin to invest your time and talent into your local communities to prevent your hometown from becoming the next “anywhere” that tragedy strikes. ••
Rep. Thomas Murt represents the 152nd Legislative District and is the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Mental Health and the House Disabilities Caucus. Dr. Daniel G. Hartman is the Sandy Hook Promise leader and vice president of Outpatient Behavioral Health at Holy Redeemer Health System.