Tuesday, December 18, 2012

We Are Newtown

What happened at Newtown, CT on Friday rocked our nation to its very core.   

I can't imagine identifying my baby's body at the same school that I dropped them off at hours before.  I can't imagine my child, covered in the blood of other children, telling me that she played dead in order to stay alive.  I can't imagine being at a fire station, anxiously waiting for my babies to return, only to hear that there are no more survivors.

And yet I must imagine it.  Because this happened.  It really, really happened.  In a place where no one thought it could ever happen. 

We big people have to make sure that it never happens again.

Like most Americans, I've been glued to the news.  Probably because I live in a place a lot like Newtown.  A place where everyone knows my kids and where I know everyone - or at least their cousins.

Like a lot of other parents in America, I struggled with sending my children to school yesterday.

There's a doorbell on my son's junior high school - much like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary.  You ring the buzzer, and it unlocks the door.  A camera shoots an image to a fuzzy black and white screen, where a secretary not versed in law enforcement buzzes people in.   

There's an unarmed security guard at my son's high school, and someone at a guard shack who is supposed to ask me where I'm headed.  She usually just waves me on.  When I visit his school, I sign in, grab a badge, and go unescorted anywhere I want to go in the building. 

My mom has worked in an elementary school for 26 years.  She's the secretary at a large school in another town.   She also has the same security set up as the one at Sandy Hook.  She can see people coming in - but she can't see what they are carrying.  She is the first line of defense for her school.

We worry about her safety. 

A friend of mine is a teacher's aide.  She's been assigned to just one student.  He hits, claws, bites, and threatens to kill her.  Daily. 

She's afraid of him.  She continues in this position because she and her family need the income.

Right after watching the CNN coverage of the Interfaith Memorial Service in Newtown, the phone rang.  It was our superintendent with a recorded message about how we take security at our schools very seriously.

I love our school corporation, but the methods of security have not increased as dramatically as the needs of the population they are serving.

Recently, at a local Rotary Club meeting, I learned of the consequences of the severe lack of mental health services in our community. 

We had a young man in our town commit a murder - extremely rare in our neck of the woods.  He was suffering from untreated mental illness.  He was treatable.

Why?  He couldn't afford the treatment.

So now, this young man is in prison.  And the cost to society - a dead woman, children without a father, and the cost of prison upkeep - is far more than his medication and treatment would ever have been.

People around this county like to hunt, and I'm the rare person who doesn't own a gun.  But even my hunting friends scratch their heads and wonder why anyone would need to own an AR-15 for any purpose other than killing a person.  It is a semi-automatic version of the M-16.

And, hey boys?  Despite what this ad suggests?  A gun won't make you more of a man.

An AR-15 is a weapon of war that I can just go and purchase nearly anywhere.  And plenty of ammunition to go with it.  I don't have a criminal history, but what in the world do I need with an assault rifle if I'm not in Afghanistan? 

Can I use a different kind of rifle for hunting, or does my need to feel like a badass trump public safety?

As an aside, it's interesting how the NRA has been strangely silent throughout this tragedy.  Their Facebook page has disappeared, right after claiming 1.7 million subscribers.  Why not use this time to champion second amendment rights?  Where is the gun lobby now?

I keep hearing that it is time for meaningful dialogue.

I'm ready.

First, the lack of mental health care for people in this country is appalling.  I have a dear friend whose 18 year old granddaughter has started hearing voices.  The facilities can take her for three days at a time as an emergency, but that isn't long enough to get this young woman stabilized with any meaningful accuracy.

As this article suggests, the threat of someone with mental illness becoming violent - which is rare - diminishes considerably when that person can receive adequate treatment.

So, step one?  Get the APA and the AMA to give their recommendations for those facing a mental health crisis - and then put that at the top of the list for nationalized health care. 

And while we're at it, let's lose the stigma against mental illness and the need for therapy.  If we all had a good therapist and a Sunday afternoon nap, we'd probably have world peace. 

Second, create a buyback program where people can trade their guns for cash.

Third, create a license for firearms that feeds into a national database.  Make the license at least as difficult to obtain as a driver's license.  If we can require people to have automobile insurance, we can require them to have proof of a safe in which to store firearms.  Stop allowing unlicensed kids to do target practice at shooting ranges.  License the bearer as well as the firearm.

The final step is two-fold.  First, increase security at every school in America by placing a police officer at the front door or perimeter.  These can be recently discharged veterans who are trained to sniff out danger.  This need not seem like a prison guard - we need to teach children that police officers are their friends, and there's no reason why the presence of a cop - a helper - need be intimidating to children.  

Next, install an alarm system that a teacher or staff member can activate that would send teachers and children into lockdown mode, just as they would alert the school to fire or inclement weather.  No more principals throwing themselves at gunmen while yelling down hallways to alert teachers to danger.  No more students threatening teachers and staff without dire consequences and a strong action plan that secures the health and safety of all students at school.

Let's have a better way. 

How do we pay for this?  Tax ammunition.  That ought to generate some pretty good revenue.  Also, I wonder how much money we allocate for standardized testing, much of which is developmentally inappropriate anyway?  

In order to prevent another Newtown, we have to prevent criminals from ever becoming criminals.

How do we get Congress on board?  I know, these guys are willing to plunge us over a cliff rather than compromise.  

One of my friends said this:  "It is mighty easy for a politician who sits in an Ivory Tower in Washington behind guards and scanners to decide not to do anything about the gun laws and gun violence. They and their staff members lead protected lives of privilege. If they refuse to make serious change, I propose elimination of all Capital Hill security at the same time. Turn about is fair play, right?"

If it's good enough for Congress, it's good enough for our kids.  And I think in the light of this tragedy, where all Americans can see the faces of their children when they see these precious angels at Sandy Hook?  I think they are willing to listen.

Since we have tolerated violence as inevitable, and since we have denied money for mental health awareness and treatment to the most vulnerable of our citizens, we must deal with the consequences so that no other parents deal with the devastation at Sandy Hook.

While all I can truly do for the families and first responders at Sandy Hook is pray and offer meager condolences, I can honor the memories of these tiny people and those that cared for them by combining my voice with others to help bring about real change.

So can you.  We are Newtown. 

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