Newport Mental Health

School Shootings Shake Us

By

Jamie Lehane and Mary Alexandre

This column was originally featured in The Newport Daily News.

What is there left to say after another surreal, horrendous week or two with school gun violence in our country, where three young children and three staff members at a Nashville Christian school were killed by a former student carrying assault rifles. We all feel sick at the headlines. The ripple effects of these nightmarish incidents affect all families everywhere, as well as teachers, students and school personnel. Parents are afraid to send their children to school. Many school-age children were already experiencing escalating anxiety. Fear of school shootings is even making this worse, even when the violence is far away. Can this happen here in Newport County? What can we do about it?

A demonstrator displays a picture of the victims of the Covenant School shooting on their phone inside the Tennessee State Capitol during a protest against gun violence on March 30, in Nashville, Tennessee. Seth Herald, Getty Images

So far this year there have been 13 school-involved shootings with fatalities or injuries with 23 people killed or injured. This is on track to eclipse the record-setting 51 school shootings in 2022. They were as close by as Baltimore and Virginia, and stretched through the central states, south and Texas. Of these, 10 people were killed, including six children.

There are no easy answers, but all of us taking action and positive steps can help with the anxiety of the situation and reduce these injuries and death. Speak up, be aware – there ARE things we can focus on to mitigate the problems.

Improve early identification, intervention and support, especially in schools.

Many of the young adults and late adolescents who commit mass shootings, often white males, have exhibited signs of serious behavioral, emotional, and learning disorders but did not receive sufficient interventions and supports before they were expelled, quit school or graduated without a transition plan. Just look at them on TV after each shooting. You don’t need a Ph.D. in psychology to see that these individuals needed serious help. It is not hyperbole to say they were failed by society, families, school systems and yes, our mental health system. They all don’t have traditional diagnosable psychiatric disorders but none of them were in the right kind of intensive services they needed when they committed their shootings. They need to be treated promptly and carefully, before they get a hold of weapons and go into a downward spiral. Throw in some social media on top of that and there’s a recipe for someone to right perceived wrongs, commit suicide by cop, and/or make themselves infamous for a mass shooting.

Better intervention and treatment for our children and teens are critical.

It is important not to stigmatize those with emotional disorders and mental illness, though, because they and their families will shy away from the very treatments that could save them and save others. Traditional insurance does not pay for the type of outreach, engagement and services these people need. Schools can’t afford the intensive Individual Education Plans many should have received. The new State of Rhode Island, Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinic initiative if adopted this year does pay for this kind of outreach and intensive services that can make a difference. And of course, most people who live with mental illness do not become violent.

Better utilize Red Flag laws.

Rhode Island has had a Red Flag law on the books since 2018. Essentially, it allows police departments or individuals to seek from Superior Court an ‘extreme risk protective order’ that allows them to disarm a person who is a violent threat to themselves or others. It’s a civil action, not criminal. The use of the Red Flag law has been slow. The Rhode Island Superior Court issued 50 of these orders to police departments throughout the state. Better than many states that have them. Most of these have been used in domestic violence situations, not as a tool to prevent shootings. In Newport last year, only one Red Flag court order was initiated, possibly a result of Newport’s recent focus on community policing. Just like with suicide prevention, the surrender of ‘lethal means’ either voluntarily or involuntarily is the first preventive step. There needs to be more education for families, mental health professionals and law enforcement on the appropriate use of Red Flags laws to increase their use and increase their preventive impact.

Limit access to high-velocity assault-type rifles.

I try to stay away from politically sensitive topics and personally support the 2nd amendment right to bear arms. However, limiting access to assault-type rifles will certainly reduce the number of deaths given the lethality of these weapons. A bullet from a regular firearm that strikes someone will often go straight though them like a pencil. A bullet from an assault rifle is designed to tumble, shatter and literally explode in the body. Emergency physicians say that the organs of children hit by these bullets are destroyed, unrepairable and fatal. A hunter does not use an assault rifle because of the damage it will do to their prey. A ban or restriction of who may obtain these weapons will not solve all the violence, but it’s an excellent place to start.

Can it happen here? The impact of school shootings and violence has trickled down to our own backyards. Just before the Nashville shooting, more than a dozen schools in RI were victims of ‘swatting,’ or widespread prank calls. In this recent case, schools were told there was an active shooter.

Locally, Portsmouth High School was among those affected by the swatting hoax. It may have turned out to be nothing, but ‘it was still real,’ said one PHS parent. ‘The fear the kids felt was real. The fear the parents experienced was real. The lost academic time was real. The students went back to class, trying to pull themselves together, some more shaken up than others. Kids, whose brains and emotional maturity are far from fully developed, are bearing the burden of this national disaster. The students are expected to have the mental and emotional strength to know the protocols, navigate a complete lockdown, and transition back into their day because politicians (who never set foot in a school) do not have the courage to act.’ There is more we can do to reduce these tragedies.

Jamie Lehane is Chief Strategy Officer of Newport Mental Health in Middletown. Peace of Mind, which is co-written with Mary Alexandre, runs in The Daily News and online at newportri.com.