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Deep divisions remain after Sandy Hook

Wire • Dec 8, 2013 at 10:33 PM

In the year since 26 young children, teachers and school personnel were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School, school districts across the country installed more locks and surveillance cameras, hired armed security guards and provided teachers with firearm or emergency training or access to weapons.

But critics question the value of some of the security changes and warn that other proposed changes to the mental health system or to the nation’s gun laws in the name of protecting students — including an Ohio bill requiring firearm owners to lock up their weapons to prevent children from accessing them — are misguided, counterproductive or unconstitutional.

“If the state requires that a gun is locked up in a house, that’s the gun I use for self-defense, and that’s illegal and unconstitutional,” said Jim Irvine, chairman of the Buckeye Firearms Association. “You cannot require the gun to be locked up and unusable in the house.”

While the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., shattered the public’s faith in the safety of America’s school students, there remains a deep cultural divide about what reforms could prevent or stop the next Sandy Hook from happening.

The most visible change since Sandy Hook has come in the area of school security, but there is little agreement among educators or lawmakers about how best to protect the schools, and many strongly object to giving school personnel access to weapons.

“Teachers do not face emergency situations on a regular basis like police officers do, and they are going to be more nervous and scared and are more likely to have a problem with accurate shooting,” said Amy Pulles, director of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence.

Police and cameras

Ohio has had its share of school violence and threats of school violence.

An Ohio teen this year was convicted of the February 2012 killing of three teens and the injuring of three others in a shooting that took place in a cafeteria at Chardon High School near Cleveland.

A Licking County high school student was arrested last year after scrawling a hit list on a bathroom wall.

On the day of the Sandy Hook massacre, a 15-year-old Wilmington High School sophomore posted on his Facebook page that “murder is a good thing,” and it “doesn’t matter who is getting killed as long as there is killing,” according to court records.

The sophomore said he would have done the killing himself if he could have, and he then proceeded to threaten the life of another Facebook user, court records show.

The student was arrested, charged with inducing panic and aggravated menacing and ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

School districts have scrambled to make their facilities and campuses safer for students and teachers. More than 1,200 schools statewide have applied for grants to pay for emergency radios and other security upgrades through the Ohio School Facilities Commission.

Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Schools added police security to its elementary buildings and purchased additional surveillance cameras.

Springfield City Schools plans to spend $1.7 million on updated and additional security technology.

Kettering City Schools is spending more than $1 million on security upgrades, and it has limited access to its buildings so there is only one entry point.

“To get in, you have to go through a couple of checkpoints of surveillance,” said Jim Schoenlein, Kettering’s superintendent.

Firearms in schools

Edgewood City Schools earlier this year approved new rules that allow administrators to carry firearms in school buildings and on school grounds if they acquire the proper qualifications.

But Sidney City Schools took some of the most drastic measures to improve school security after 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot his way into Sandy Hook on Dec. 14, 2012, and killed 20 first-graders and six adults with a Bushmaster semi-automatic assault rifle before killing himself with a Glock 20 semi-automatic pistol.

The Shelby County district hired armed guards at all seven of its school buildings, and it has surveillance cameras that cover every hallway and doorway in its facilities. The surveillance footage feeds into the police and sheriff’s departments.

Sidney has sent about 40 teachers through firearm training, and some of those teachers are part of the district’s first-responder team. Team members can access loaded handguns contained in biometric safes located throughout the school buildings.

“First-responder team members are the only ones who have access to the biometric safes through their fingerprints,” said Superintendent John Scheu. “We have practiced and had drills in all of the buildings, and our first-responder team works in conjunction with the school security officer to prevent a Sandy Hook from happening.”

Scheu said his first-responder team is prepared to deal with various emergencies. Though mass killings are rare, Scheu noted that they have occurred in the unlikeliest of places, including an Amish school in rural Pennsylvania where a milk truck driver killed five girls aged six to 13 and injured five more on Oct. 2, 2006.

Trained staff members and armed guards must actively engage a school shooter to prevent the assailant from easily creating carnage, said Shelby County Sheriff John Lenhart, who has helped train teachers and other school employees how to respond properly to school rampages.

After receiving a 911 call of a school shooter, the fastest that police can respond is between four and five minutes — allowing a killer too much time to create mayhem, Lenhart said.

In Newtown, the first police officer arrived on scene within four minutes of the initial 911 call. But Lanza had killed himself within one minute of the officer arriving, and in just minutes, he created a body count of 26.

Rampage killers who are met with gunfire from people trained in firearm use will often surrender or commit suicide, Lenhart said

“Every 12 seconds, once a shooting starts, a kid is hurt or killed if somebody doesn’t confront them,” Lenhart said. “It minimizes that.”

Lenhart said the best approach to avoiding a Newtown-like tragedy is multi-layered and involves school security guards, trained teachers and security technologies.

But gun-control advocates said arming educators and expecting them to confront violent intruders and gunmen is dangerous and unrealistic.

Teachers and other employees do not have the years of intense training that police officers go through, and their inexperience in emergencies may lead to tragic mistakes, such as shooting a student or another innocent person, said Pulles, of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence.

Teachers should stay with their students instead of taking on the role of a security guard or police officer, she said.

The Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio said communities should reconsider adding police officers to their buildings, because it puts students at a higher risk of being pushed out of school and into unnecessary involvement with the juvenile justice system.

No beds available

Lanza was obsessed with mass murderers and he had significant mental health issues that affected his ability to live a normal life and interact with others, according to a report released last month by the Connecticut State Police.

But investigators found no evidence that Lanza told others that he intended to commit a crime, and he did not display aggressive or threatening behaviors, the report said.

Lanza suffered from anxiety, Asperger’s characteristics, obsessive-compulsive disorder concerns and sensory issues, the report said. Lanza refused to take medication for his issues, and he did not use recommended behavior therapies.

The report concluded it was unclear whether Lanza’s mental health issues contributed to his decision to go on a killing spree. But it noted “the evidence shows he knew his conduct to be against the law.”

Mentally ill individuals have been responsible for some of the deadliest and most publicized mass murders in recent history.

But there are huge differences between the mental illnesses that are said to affect one in four U.S. adults, and most illness does not cause people to become violent. People with mental illness usually are no more prone to violence than the general population, experts said, but they are many times more likely to be a victim of crime.

Mass murderers often suffer from delusions, paranoia, depression and behavioral and personality disorders, experts said.

Jared Loughner, who in January 2011 killed six people and wounded 13 others in Arizona, including U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was later diagnosed with schizophrenia.

James Holmes, who reportedly suffers from serious mental illness, killed 12 people, including Springfield native Matt McQuinn, 27, in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., in July 2012.

Holmes saw three psychiatrists prior to his killing spree, one of whom warned police that he threatened her and made homicidal statements.

Aaron Alexis, the killer of 12 people in a Navy Yard in the nation’s capital in September, reportedly heard voices and suffered from paranoia and hallucinations.

Despite the prevalence of mental health disorders, mentally ill people are only responsible for a small fraction of violence toward others, and the vast majority of people with mental illness can recover with treatment, said Terry Russell, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Ohio.

He said the biggest challenge facing those who work with the mentally ill is funding. Nearly all of the mass murderers who suffered from mental illness were not receiving treatment, and the mental health system has failed some people because it is underfunded and lacks sufficient support, Russell said.

Last month, 24-year-old Gus Deeds stabbed his father, Virginia state Sen. Creigh Deeds, and then killed himself just hours after a mental health evaluation determined he needed treatment. He was not committed, because there were no psychiatric beds available.

“There should be treatment available to everyone with a mental illness,” Russell said. “But the problem is there are no beds available. These people need services and they can’t get them.”

‘We needed to do something’

Ohio has fewer public psychiatric beds than it did a decade ago, and more than one-third of those with serious mental illness never get treatment, the alliance on mental illness says.

State Rep. Margaret Ann Ruhl, R-Mount Vernon, is the cosponsor of Ohio House Bill 104, which she says will help families of people with mental disorders make sure their loved ones get treatment.

“After the (Sandy Hook) incident, I felt that we needed to do something because we definitely have a problem in the state and the country with mental illness,” Ruhl said.

House Bill 104 provides some legal clarity about under which conditions a person is considered mentally ill and subject to court-ordered treatment, the alliance said.

The bill also clarifies the law to definitively allow probate courts to place people in outpatient treatment who meet certain criteria, the group said. Family members of mentally ill individuals often cannot get their loved ones court-ordered treatment unless they are suicidal or homicidal.

The bill would give judges clear authority to step in before someone with a serious mental illness who is unaware of his or her need for treatment becomes so ill that hospitalization or incarceration are the only remaining options, the alliance said.

The bill passed the House judiciary committee unanimously in November, and could come up for a vote before the full House this week.

Dayton resident Amanda Baker said her family could not get her brother, Ben, admitted to a hospital because he would not admit that he was suicidal or homicidal.

Ben, she said, was paranoid, delusional and eventually decided to run from police officers because he was convinced they were out to kill him. He rammed a police car when officers cornered him and was charged with four felonies. He was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity, she said.

Baker believes Ruhl’s bill will help people like her brother get outpatient treatment before they commit a serious crime.

“I believe this bill will prevent tragedies like my brother’s, change lives for the better and even save lives,” she said, during sponsored testimony for the bill.

But Disability Rights Ohio has raised concerns about House Bill 104, and the organization claims it will create more stress on the mental health system.

Research indicates that positive outcomes result from the availability of resources and more robust support services, the group said. But the expansion of court ordered, assisted outpatient treatment without additional resources to support enhanced access to services is not a sound mental health policy, the group said in a letter to the sponsor of a companion bill in the Ohio Senate.

Michael Kirkman, executive director of Disability Rights Ohio, said he is concerned the bill could divert crucial resources and funding away from people who voluntarily seek treatment. He said many people who voluntarily seek treatment are in dire need of assistance, but they already face significant barriers to accessing services and those could become even more formidable.

“So many people get put on wait lists, and people who aren’t Medicaid eligible and who rely on state and local dollars for services who want to access services in a voluntary fashion often are wait-listed because there are no resources in many counties,” he said.

But since Sandy Hook, Gov. John Kasich has committed $5 million in grant money for programs that provide crisis intervention services for young people and services to help develop long-term treatment plans for them, said the Ohio Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services.

Kasich also signed a bill into law that requires schools to educate their employees in youth suicide awareness and prevention as part of in-service training, the department said.

The Kasich Administration also fought for the extension of Medicaid benefits to Ohioans up to 138 percent of federal poverty level, which means that thousands of more residents will have access to health care for mental illness and addiction, said Eric Wandersleben, spokesman with the Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services.

Guns polarizing issue

People on all sides of the debate over school security agree the schools are getting safer because Newtown prompted districts to reevaluate their safety plans and many districts have improved their security policies.

But restricting guns remains a polarizing issue in America. The arguments for and against surface again and again.

The guns Lanza used during his murder spree belonged to his mother. He killed her with her own gun, before he went on the killing spree in the school.

Some people with mental illnesses should not have access to weapons, and people who live with mentally ill individuals must understand the risks involved in having weapons in their homes, experts said.

Though Lanza was an adult, he was not licensed to carry a weapon. Some proponents of gun control said the threat of school violence can be reduced by creating “safe storage” laws.

Ohio House Bill 31, sponsored by Rep. Bill Patmon, D-Cleveland, would require gun owners to safely lock up or store their firearms in their homes if there is a reasonable chance a child could access them.

Holding gun owners criminally responsible for failing to safely store their firearms would help keep guns out of the hands of children and reduce the likelihood those weapons would be used for violent purposes, said Pulles, with the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence.

“It’s common sense legislation to keep guns out of the hands of children,” she said. “(Newtown) brought out to the forefront what can happen when guns get into the hands of the wrong person.”

But Irvine said break-ins and home invasions are far more common than murder sprees such as Sandy Hook, and Ohioans need access to their firearms to protect themselves and their families.

Updating safety plans

In Congress, none of the bills introduced after Sandy Hook to restrict gun ownership or use have passed.

People on all sides of these debates agree that schools are getting safer because Newtown prompted districts to reevaluate their safety plans and many districts have improved their security policies.

Authorities today are better at responding to any threats or signals that violence could occur, because they understand that diligence is essential to preventing another tragedy from occurring, said Wilmington police Chief Duane Weyand.

The Wilmington High School student who posted the disturbing Facebook comments on the day of the Sandy Hook shooting was quickly arrested, charged and convicted.

Police were stationed at the high school the day after the threats were made. The school district sent automated phone messages alerting parents of the situation.

“He caused panic and alarm ... it was definitely a disruption to our school and our community,” said Wilmington police Chief Duane Weyand. “It’s no longer like, ‘Aw, that’s just Jimmie.’ ... The days of joking (about violence) are over.”

Attorney General Mike DeWine said the shootings in Sandy Hook and Chardon have prompted Ohio’s school districts to update their safety plans and coordinate them with law enforcement and mental health officials.

He acknowledged that many school districts lack the money to hire armed school resource officers. That’s why the safety program his office designed focuses mostly on training school personnel how to respond to an active shooter, he said.

His office is also working with the Ohio Police Officer Training Academy to design a curriculum that establishes minimum requirements that a school district must have to allow armed school personnel. DeWine said the plan should be released in a few weeks.

“We now have virtually every school in the state with a school safety plan,” DeWine said. “A year ago, we did not have that.”

(c)2013 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio)

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