The fallout from the tragic events in Newtown, Conn., continues to reverberate as various proposals have been created to discuss the best way to ensure that a similar event does not occur in one of our schools in the future. Listening to so many people with so many differing points of view state their case with solutions like armed principals, armed janitors, armed guards, etc. has been both tiresome and sad. At what point can we focus on some proactive steps to minimizing the chances of mass shootings in our schools, our theaters or any public place where someone with bad intentions could harm large numbers of innocent people?
If we are at the point where we truly believe that the trump card is a gun on top of another gun, then I think we are missing the bigger picture. One gun on top of another gun simply puts us at an impossible impasse. The long-term solution to this issue is one that takes guns out of the conversation and puts mental health at the forefront. The common denominator that needs to be the focal point of this conversation is not weapons, but mental health. Whether we are looking at Newtown, Aurora, Columbine or another of the tragic mass shootings that have occurred in recent memory, we will find that there is not only a gun, but also a mentally ill individual at the center of the event.
Thankfully, there are some references to this issue in President Barack Obama’s Now is the Time proposal that was unveiled recently. Unfortunately, it is at the bottom of the list of action items and not at the top. The bottom two items on the nine-point checklist:
- Make our schools safer with new resource officers and counselors, better emergency response plans and more nurturing school climates.
- Ensure quality coverage of mental health treatment, particularly for young people.
My point is not to get into a debate about guns or any of the other aspects of the president’s plan that focus on items unrelated to the area of mental health. But the fact of the matter is that our failure to deal with mental health issues proactively earlier has put us in a position where we have such a long list of items to resolve presently. If we orchestrated a plan where our children and their communities had access to the comprehensive support they need to deal with their particular social problems, we would be in a different position.
Just as our national vision for education has failed to keep pace with the reality of the world outside of our school doors, the vision of support for our children and their families has lagged well behind the current reality where the nuclear family is a minority and the need for a caring adults for every child is critical.
The improvement of our schools will not come as a result of more standardized tests or more weapons. The improvement of our schools will not come because of education policy or weapons policy. What is long overdue is the creation of more comprehensive social policies that proactively approach the increasing numbers of mental health issues that are the true cause of the horrific tragedies that we have seen far too often in the past decade.
Patrick Larkin (@patrickmlarkin) is the assistant superintendent for learning for Burlington Public Schools in Massachusetts. He is a former high-school principal and former commission member of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.