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Editorial columns

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Incidents such as last week’s in Decatur, Ga., have intensified calls for armed guards inside school buildings.

Shooting from the hip

Two sessions too few to study issues of school violence

When I talk with parents of school-age children, their No. 1 concern is school safety.

On Thursday, the School Safety Interim Study Committee will meet to discuss that issue. It will be the first of only two meetings that are supposed to tackle an extremely complicated topic.

As I write this, the agenda for either meeting has yet to be released.

Last session, some legislators suggested the presence of guns would deter gun crimes in schools. I disagree.

There was a shooting spree on the Fort Hood army base in Texas, where guns are everywhere. Likewise, a madman shot numerous people on the Virginia Tech University campus, which has 49 sworn police officers.

Guns are not the answer to a complex problem. Other issues need to be explored.

For instance, the issue of mental health has not been adequately addressed.

Identification of students and adults with potential mental health needs is a valid concern that should be on the agenda. Most gun-related incidents involve individuals with some connection to the institution they attack. However, with only two meetings and limited testimony, it is doubtful that mental health issues will be thoroughly reviewed by this study committee.

Teacher and staff training must be a subject examined closely. What are their specific responsibilities? What plans do we have to ensure proper training and funding for it?

These are valid questions.

Another School Safety Study Group has made significant progress already.

Gov. Mike Pence chairs the group, which includes Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz; Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura, head of the Indiana Department of Child Services; Indiana State Police Superintendent Doug Carter; Gen. Martin Umbarger of the Indiana National Guard; Division of Mental Health Addictions Director Kevin Moore; and other distinguished individuals.

This study group recommends that Indiana develop a website that houses all pertinent information regarding school safety. It also suggests that seminars be given by the appropriate agencies to assist school districts and their educators.

Additionally, agencies dealing with mental health issues and corrections will aid the transition for those who have experienced problems.

These are all good recommendations and our legislative study committee should expand upon them. However, two meetings is not enough time.

The issue of school safety came to the forefront following the Columbine High School tragedy in Colorado 14 years ago. Last year, the Sandy Hook Elementary School killings in Newtown, Conn. renewed and amplified the outcry.

Throughout the years, groups have explored a variety of safety plan options. Every school corporation in Indiana runs its own program.

Some have police officers assigned to schools by local police chiefs. Other districts hire retired or off-duty officers. These individuals are highly trained, which is essential for someone armed with a gun.

I make this observation as a former police officer with many years of experience. That is why I opposed the legislative proposal last session to place an armed person in every school building. These would not necessarily have been trained individuals, such as police officers.

Using guns to react to guns is like mixing volatile chemicals. One needs to have the proper training to keep a cool head in volatile situations.

One can only imagine a situation in which an irate parent goes to her children’s school, makes some threats in the heat of the moment then puts her hand into her purse. Perhaps she is reaching for a tissue, but the untrained person with a gun thinks she is reaching for a weapon. It is not inconceivable that the untrained person would draw and shoot the mother whereas, a well-trained officer would keep a calm head in a tense situation and make the correct, life-and-death decision.

There are no easy answers to highly complex issues such as school safety. A glance won’t suffice. We need a magnifying glass.

We can create the safest schools in the country, but the issues must be reviewed in depth. The other School Safety Study Group has given us a good start. Let’s complete the job properly. We should not sprint to the finish line only to find we’ve just begun the race. Let’s run this study committee as if lives depend upon it because they do.

Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, is an Indiana state representative. She wrote this for Indiana newspapers.

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