On Dec. 15, two weeks after a shooting at a school in Oxford, Michigan, in which a student killed four classmates, members of the Garrison school board, at their regular monthly meeting, had a discussion about guns, mental health and school security. Their comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.
David Gelber: On my way over here, I heard a report on CNN on the shocking increase in gun homicide in the U.S. this year, 35 to 40 percent increase. I tried to put myself in the head of a school board member in Oxford and whether he or she regretted not having taken more aggressive action on gun control. I did a little research and it turns out that there are about 26 states that have child gun access prevention laws; New York is not one of them. There is a Philipstown statute that is not really enforceable that holds parents responsible — if they are not in the house, kids are not supposed to have access to guns. I’m not aware of any history of enforcement on that. It feels like an oversight — maybe an intentional oversight — that New York State has neglected to pass a child access prevention law, not just in terms of rifles but automatic or semi-automatic weapons, which is what used in Oxford. It’s just insane that kids have access to those types of weapons. Jocelyn [Apicello] and I have talked about this and we don’t have any specific proposal but maybe one thing we could do is propose to [state Assembly Member] Sandy Galef, who is very strong on the issue of gun control, if she would introduce something in the state Legislature that would remedy this oversight.
Apicello: Before I even say anything, has anyone else thought about what happened, or the news we heard today on several fronts about gun violence? Do you think the board needs to do anything?
Sarah Tormey: I can see the point of reaching out to our elected officials regarding new laws, but New York does have some strong gun control laws. Working within that, I’m thinking about, what are we doing within our building? And does it go beyond laws to make it safe? Everytown.org has a comprehensive plan for schools on what you should do for gun safety. It asks, do you have a comprehensive Student Threat Assessment Program? What are we doing for mental health? Do our teachers and school officials understand how to use extreme-risk laws [to remove students who may be a threat]? I think most of the studies show that if a student is planning to harm themselves or harm others with a gun, somebody has probably heard about it, or heard something. When that information is brought forth, where do they go with it? What action is taken? That’s more what I’ve been thinking about. It’s less about reaching out and more going through what we’re doing now. Thinking about, is this enough? I think that goes in part with the laws but also more toward school culture and mental health, almost. Public awareness is key. Maybe we need to work in conjunction with some of our law enforcement officers to help raise awareness of what the laws are here.
Madeline Julian: It would be great if we can send letters out because it would lower any risk of that ever happening in our district. We may not have control of what happens but at least we can show that we would like some support on this.
Gelber: The issue in Michigan was parental negligence. That’s not controllable. It involved parents who made it possible for a kid to have an automatic weapon. There’s nothing in the New York State law that holds parents accountable for negligence having to do with minor access to guns. It seems to me that that is that that’s a gaping hole in the in the legal system.
Apicello: I started thinking a little bit broader than gun safety or gun violence. Instead of always reacting — not us, but just in general, we react to a new variant or we react to a gun shooting in a school — if we had something that we just committed to as a district that the PTA and the board collaborates on, so that every September is about sex ed, every October is about gun violence and mental health and we did monthly sessions that regularly engaged our parent community, so that it wasn’t always reactionary. In those settings, we could ask, did you know that we have a gun safety law in Philipstown where you can be fined $1,000? Do you know how to get a lock for your gun? Most people don’t know that in New York State you can own any kind of gun except a handgun at age 16, 17 and 18 and 19. I’m kind of trying not to react too much on one issue and trying to step back and think of broadly what can we do to build the strength and cohesiveness of the community in addition to writing letters to [state Sen. Sue] Serino and Galef. I think you can’t go wrong with that.
Tormey: My only thought on the letters is I’d like to be very specific about what we’re asking for. For example, some gun laws are being challenged in the courts. Are we addressing those? Which ones are we going after? Are we talking about raising the minimum age for purchase? Are we talking about just access? Is there a law in another state that you could replicate? I’m not saying I’m in favor or not but if we’re going to write a letter it should be something specific.
Gelber: We should get some legal guidance about what’s plausible. Somehow 26 states have found a way to have these [child access] laws.
Matthew Speiser: These issues don’t seem mutually exclusive. Without getting into the specifics, it feels like the security piece is the least feel-good but perhaps most important in terms of actually preventing an atrocity. There’s only so much you can do to predict who’s going to do what. You can interpret any number of things that a kid is doing that are totally innocent. My cynicism hat is on. I’m feeling a little hopeless, although that’s not a reason not to try. The security piece doesn’t give me good feelings about the human condition but it feels like the piece that might stop, not a student but an outsider, from doing something horrible.
Kent Schacht: I would agree with Matt. I am probably a little on the hopeless side, as well. I think letters are great. I don’t think that law is going to stop a parent who’s negligent from not being negligent, but I do think of holding them to account is important. But I do think security is ultimately the difference maker if something is to happen.
Apicello: I worry about focusing on this and running into some proposal from whoever it might be that we increase security, like by getting an SRO [school resource officer, aka police officer, assigned to the school]. That is not an evidence-based way to prevent this kind of violence. I don’t want this to derail into the discussion we have continuously over the years, about security. Does that make sense?
Tormey: I agree, but how do you do a threat assessment without an SRO? It is more of a mental health issue. We have a school psychologist, somebody who knows the kids, knows how our students are feeling and what’s going on in their lives.
Speiser: Advocacy for a law is vital, mental health is vital and security is vital. Taking your eye off the ball at any of them is willfully negligent because they’re all potentially something that could protect the community. Security is a broad term, but there are tons of simple things, like single-door access, making sure emergency buttons are kept up, that are not particularly intrusive and don’t change the culture of community. Kids don’t even know about it. And yet it’s there, and it’s keeping them safe.
Gelber: Obviously our primary responsibility is to our own community, but we have another responsibility, which is that we care about this not happening not just in Garrison or Philipstown, but elsewhere. The idea of setting a standard and injecting this notion into the public discourse might be helpful statewide, not just here.
Speiser: I’m happy to stand up for the letter that we’re going to write, but if it was signed by…
Gelber: Signed by a lot of different districts.
Speiser: Yes. I know then you start to wade into politics, but it seems like that would carry more weight in the state Legislature. Not that Garrison doesn’t pack a punch, but more than one punch would help.
Julian: Maybe it’s worth contacting NYSSBA [the New York State School Boards Association]. They might be having this conversation.
Schacht: It might make sense to say to Haldane, would you want to do this together? Maybe places where we share state representatives.
Apicello: You brought up the Sheriff’s Department. Is there a role for addressing our county government? Can it pass something that would hold more weight than the state level? Philipstown passed its safe-storage law two years before New York State did. We have home rule in New York State, so if a county can pass something, even if the state doesn’t, does it hold any water?
Superintendent Carl Albano: I would just add that we have a building safety team, an emergency response team and we work closely with the police agencies that are first responders here, the Sheriff’s Office and state troopers. They participate in lockdown drills. It’s mutually beneficial; they learn about our building. We’ve developed a rapport and they’ve been fantastic. We talked about it being a mental health issue. It’s comforting that here in Garrison, we probably have the strongest student-counselor ratios. The American Academy of School Psychologists recommends 250 to 1, and we have 100 to 1. We have a huge advantage that we are smaller and we know our children and we know our families.
Speiser: Without getting overly political, the mental health stuff is vital but not the cause. The guns are the cause. The best mental health care won’t stop the shooting epidemic; gun safety will stop the shooting epidemic. Ultimately, we should be doing all these things. But if in the context of this conversation, I think the legislation and the security will have more of an impact. That’s not to say in the larger context of life there any more important than mental health support. But in terms of preventing violence, they are more important, if that’s the goal. Because every community has mental health challenges but that’s not where you find the correlation to violence. Where you find the correlation is through the guns. I take your points, for sure, about being aware and understanding who’s potentially going to do something but without a gun, they can’t do anything. The access to guns has to be prevented and that’s where the legislation is important and the security is important.
Tormey: When we talk about this we should also be mindful that mass shootings get the attention, but we’re also talking about suicides. We’re talking about a lot of other instances of gun violence.
Speiser: In that context, mental health is really important.
Tormey: It’s all interconnected. It is not a black-and-white issue.
Speiser: It’s not. But there are different solutions for different things.
Gelber: What I would like to do is work with anybody else who’s interested on drafting a proposal.
Tormey: So we have the letter, the monthly calendar, and we circle back on what our safety guidelines are and anything we can do there. Once we have the letter, it might be appropriate to reach out to other districts.
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