NORWALK, Conn. – The multi-faceted problem of school gun violence got a four-hour look-see Tuesday night at Norwalk City Hall in a forum inspired by the Newtown School shootings last month.
David Bernstein, a forensic psychologist and founder of Forensic Consultants LLC, educated state legislators, Norwalk officials and about 30 members of the public as he spoke at length about threat assessments, the reasons why young people turn into mass murderers and the things that can be done to prevent carnage.
The forum was organized by Norwalk Common Councilwoman Anna Duleep (D-At Large), who said she wanted to see that the “sixth largest city in Connecticut is very much a part of this discussion.”
About 13 members of the public also spoke, making sure their voices were heard, as most were against additional gun legislation.
“A gun is an inanimate object. It cannot actually do any harm by itself,” said Michael Donnelly. “… We’ve been on the receiving end for so many laws that don’t get us anywhere.”
Bernstein brought up one case study over and over again – a teenaged boy who had sparked concern when he took a photo of himself with a gun to his head and matched it with the words, “Happy suicide.”
The boy’s school expelled him, but told his parents he could come back if he got a pediatrician’s recommendation. Bernstein called that a CYA (cover your a–) maneuver, and was grateful the doctor had been careful with the case, one month before Newtown.
“The kid knew more about guns than I did,” he said. “I mean, it was amazing what this kid knew about weapons.”
He knew all about Columbine, too; was obsessed about people who had bullied him and had made a booby-trap using information obtained from a website, saying, “It made a very satisfying boom,” according to Bernstein.
Most perpetrators of mass murders at schools are “injustice collectors,” he said, holding onto “every little slight” for months before saying, “I’m not going to be a doormat anymore.”
Schools need threat-assessment teams, school resource officers and defined procedures, he said, so that nobody feels picked on or singled out when there is a problem, he said. Zero-tolerance policies haven’t worked, as they deter people from coming forward, he said. “No one wants to be responsible for that kid getting kicked out of school,” he said.
He said parents who are worried about their children might see if they have an interest in school shooters – do they see them as heroes or wrong or right?
“Everybody should be monitoring their kids’ websites,” he said. “I don’t care. They’re in your house, monitor their websites. The web is a door, a portal into your home. You’re careful about who you let in your front door, be just as careful about who you let run all through your web. Super important.”
Schools need a culture of, “If you see something say something,” he said, with an avenue for anonymous tips. There are cries of “it’s too expensive,” but a web-based phone number with voice mail box is less than $50 a year, he said.
Sandy Hook Elementary School could have benefited from one low-cost improvement, he said. “It takes a long rifle a lot of time to shoot through a solid-core door,” he said, adding that they are available at Home Depot.
Steel frames on the doors and ballistic glass would make every classroom a safe room, and the kids would not notice they are in a fortress, he said.
“There are ways of making our schools very secure,” he said, “preparing for the outside shooters, and dealing with the inside threats before they get to an actionable place. You’ve just got to be clever about it. A little training goes a long way.”
Legislators said they thought the presentation was very helpful, but there was a debate.
State Rep. Larry Cafero (R-Norwalk) talked of his experience as a school expulsion officer, examining scores of cases, from people who brought a weapon to school through ignorance to those who were seeking revenge. “If we were to have risk assessment for each person, we’d be bankrupt,” he said.
State Sen. Bob Duff (D-Norwalk) said one school resource officer at a school like Norwalk High School wouldn’t make a “panacea for safety,” as there are four floors and different areas – and besides that, what about libraries, playgrounds and temples?
He said lawmakers are trying “not to have knee-jerk reactions,” and want to craft thoughtful legislation.
“I’m reluctant to do things that will just make people feel better, rather than make them safer,” he said.
State Rep. Bruce Morris (D-Norwalk) wanted to encourage positive behaviors, asking, “How do we use this Newtown tragedy as an opportunity to do something we need to do, change the culture?”
But Board of Education member Jack Chiaramonte said the only way to stop someone bent on shooting school children is to have armed guards in schools. “I thought it was ridiculous go to ball game, Grand Central, you go to an art museum, you go to a bank (you see armed guards),” he said. “What are we protecting there? Art?”
The discussion prompted thoughtful reactions from the gun advocates in the room.
“Crimes are committed by people who don’t know the laws, don’t care about the laws,” said Steve Rudolph, who said schools should be made as safe from bullets as they are from fires.
He said, “Let’s look at real legislation to help.”
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