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 He was distant and withdrawn, according to sources that knew him.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.