Newtown Requires a ‘Call to Action’

I had several emotions and feelings running through my body and mind when I heard the horrific news about Sandy Hook Elementary School. During my time as an elementary and middle school principal, I feared the insanity of the world—at any given moment—might enter the portals of my school. Even though the chances are remote, the terror of violence being played out in real time on a school campus cannot be totally absent from the thoughts of today’s school leaders.

For me, the Newtown tragedy is more about the resources we need as a nation to care for our fellow citizens who are mentally ill than gun control. And yet, we will not advance the cause of decreasing violent incidents until we discuss both issues openly and honestly with a subsequent call to action.

No matter how aware and trained we are on best practices in school safety—lockdowns, stranger on campus drills, evacuations, earthquake readiness, etc.—we are at the mercy of a world that far too often lacks the resources to deal with mental illness.

At the interfaith prayer service at Newtown High School on Sunday night, President Obama said: “We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes are complex. … No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.”

How can we do better? First, if we are truly our brother’s keepers, we must begin to strategically and systemically care for the mentally ill. The public schools are the best places to begin implementation of a mental health plan for students that exhibit unhealthy patterns of behavior.

The faculty and staff of every school in America know the students who need more resources. And yet, far too often, the schools do not have the resources they need to care for those who are the neediest among the student body. We must give the schools the resources they need to support mentally ill students.

The perpetrator of this despicable act at Sandy Hook was bereft of self-esteem, according to anecdotal reporting. He was distant and withdrawn, according to sources that knew him. In 2008, while in high school, he was referred to a school psychologist. Staff members at that school feared that he would be a target of bullying by others. My guess is he did get bullied and those experiences were painful. His anger grew.

I read that he was an avid video game player with a particular fondness for electronic games that mimicked real gun violence. Shooting guns at the range was a hobby for him. When you add the symptoms and patterns up, we can conclude that he needed support and help to increase his chances to live a life of promise and fulfillment.

The people in the Newtown village knew, I am sure, about his personality disorder. His mother knew. The investigators will uncover several clues in the upcoming days that he gave, whether on his computer hard drive or his own words on paper. His mother and neighbors did not know who to turn to for help and support.

One thing we can do as a society is make certain school administrators throughout America have access to mental health professionals, who can listen and then provide the necessary, and sometimes ongoing, support for our students who have mental health issues. Had this assailant had support in school and a plan upon leaving school for experts to check-in regularly, I might not be writing this article today.

This incomprehensible act might lead us down a path to reduce these incidents in the future if we are serious about “doing better than this.” As for guns, I agree with former Florida Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough, from MSNBC’s “The Morning Joe,” who said on Monday: “Our Bill of Rights does not guarantee gun manufacturers the absolute right to sell military-style, high-caliber, semi-automatic combat assault rifles with high-capacity magazines to whoever the hell they want.” Scarborough also accused entertainment tycoons of glorifying murder.

Every year, more than 8,000 deaths occur in America from gun violence. Far too many of these deaths include a large percentage of our children. Perhaps there are some laws we can reach consensus on as a nation relative to gun control. I propose two to begin the conversation:

1. Reintroduce a ban on the sale of assault weapons.
2. Institute background checks that keep guns from the hands of the mentally ill.

When I was principal in Milpitas Unified, I was very fortunate to have a full time Safe School Resource Officer at my middle school, funded in equal shares by the city and the school district. The two SSROs I worked with over a three-year period did extraordinary work to keep the school safe and to help us get the resources we needed for our most fragile children.

It was one of the SSROs who told me that if a student is suicidal, he could also be homicidal. According to his training, the two psychological states are nearly identical. From that day forward I looked at those students exhibiting suicidal ideations differently.

The shooter in Newtown might have exhibited suicidal ideations in school or more recently at home. He committed a mass murder of 20 children and savagely murdered his mother and five heroic faculty members, including the principal, then took his own life with a single bullet.

On a side note: I want to congratulate my SCCOE board colleague Grace Mah for being unanimously elected to succeed me as the SCCOE Board President at our annual organizational meeting last week. I know she will do an exceptional job leading our work.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.

3 Comments

  1. A partial solution to the Newtown school problem might be Joseph Cardinal Bernardin’s 30-year-old legacy of Consistent Ethnic of Life.  He said, “The spectrum of life cuts across the issues of genetics, abortion, capital punishment, modern warfare and the care of the terminally ill” and “When human life is considered ‘cheap’ or easily expendable in one area, eventually nothing is held as sacred and all lives are in jeopardy.”

    For example, if you are a child in elementary, middle, or high school, and you have knowledge of the Great Die-Off that missed you (1.4M annually and 3,000 in the USA on the day that the Newtown school was attacked), you might find it lucky to be alive and in school at all.

    As awareness dawns, the student finds himself or herself surrounded by an astonishing outpouring of violent images never available earlier to youthful minds in the history of humankind…even the Romans and other earlier cultures that celebrated aspects of violence and bloodshed did not express it every day on every available communications technology.  And then alcohol, drugs, speeding, new diseases, new disorders, and wars in Asia beckon their bony fingers at our youth.

    The American experience has morphed into an incredible celebration of tissue damage, death, and blood-letting that educational efforts, outlawing guns, and even armed guards on school sites will not contain.  We had nothing remotely like this outpouring of violence and blood in American society in the much-maligned Forties and Fifties, but since the Sixties, this peculiar quantity of violence has risen like oceanic waters by global warming.

  2. I think this might be the closest I have come to agreeing with Mr. diSalvo on any topic. I completely agree that the central issue in this debate is how we deal with mental illness and sociopaths. I understand that the two are not the same but am also all too aware that they often overlap.

    We now know that Adam Lanza was mentally ill. As well, mental illness played a part in the Columbine, Aurora CO, Tuscon, and Virginia Tech incidents. All of them had documented histories of mental illness. And, all of them broke numerous pre-existing laws restricting ownership and possession of weapons and, in the case of Columbine, Klebold and Harris, laws regarding the manufacture of destructive devices – the penalties for which violations are pretty severe). Furthermore, Klebold and Harris used legally purchased weapons, some of which had been illegally modified.

    One of the more interesting statistical facts though needs to be examined in light of Newtown and the fact that so many legislators and pundits are calling for a renewal of an assault weapon ban. The reality is that in only a vanishingly small percentage of mass murder incidents have ‘assault weapons’ actually been used. Handguns have been used far more frequently. Furthermore, the school violence incident with the highest casualty rate was the Bath School disaster. In that incident, the suspect, a school board official, bludgeoned his wife to death and using explosives and incendiary devices, killed 38 elementary students. 2 teachers, 4 additional adults and wounded 58 others before killing himself in the final explosion.

    In the final analysis, gun laws ought to be examined in terms of their legality and utility. In Australia and Britain, after nearly universal gun bans were enacted, violent crime rose precipitously. Some experts in the UK estimate that there are over three million illegal guns in circulation in the UK today. Here in the US, the recently expired assault weapon ban had virtually no meaningful effect. And, in terms of the government’s ability to keep such weapons out of the hands of criminals (which I presume is the ultimate goal) I offer the following three examples of abyssmal government failure so far:

    1. Prohibition, which allowed Mafias and other organized crime to rise to power
    2. The war on drugs, which has allowed drug cartels and their middle eastern counterparts to develop significant social and economic power, and all to the bad
    3. The Feds total inability or disinclination to control or curtail illegal immigration.

    If the proposed gun laws fail the tests of constitutionality and utility, then we need to look for other solutions and our deeply flawed, generally failing mental health systems are a far better place to start. In addition to possibly curtailing mass murder, better mental health services might also help untold thousands get off the streets and out of psych wards in jails.

  3. The following “facts” are found in the FBI “2011 Crime In The U.S.” report…. but 1st lets review the FBI definition of “violent crime”:

    report: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2011/crime-in-the-u.s.-2011/violent-crime/violent-crime

    DEFINITION: In the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, violent crime is composed of four offenses: murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. Violent crimes are defined in the UCR Program as those offenses which involve force or threat of force.

    Per the data in the FBI report, violent crime has fallen EVERY YEAR since 2006..

    Murder, non-negligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, assault, vehicle theft (carjackings) – ALL DOWN.

    So how, when more guns have been sold in this country, EVERY YEAR since 2008 and violent crime has FALLEN since 2006, can anyone come to the conclusion that an increase in guns is the cause for an increase in violent crime? We all know that police are decreasing due to budget cuts. So the drop can’t be due to an increased police presence as a deterrent. People are on edge due to the economy, so violent crime should be increasing. Yet violent crime has fallen. So what is the deterrent?

    If the anti-gun crowd uses “more guns” as their reasoning behind these shootings and perceived rising violent crime, yet the facts reflect violent crime actually FALLING, then the logical response when reviewing the facts is that, using the anti-gun logic, that guns are the reason for the FALL in violent crime.