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Letter to Judiciary Committee Hearing on Gun Violence

January 29, 2013

Dear Senator:

On behalf of the more than three million members of the National Education Association — dedicated educators who serve and protect millions of children every day — we would like to offer our views in advance of this week’s Judiciary Committee hearing entitled, “What Should America do about Gun Violence?”  We commend the Committee for holding this very important hearing and hope you will use this opportunity to identify immediate steps to address the epidemic of gun violence in our nation. 

From Paducah, Kentucky in 1997 to Newtown just last month, every member of the National Education Association grieves when students and educators are victims of horrific violence. We are a family, so we grieve for the parents who have lost children, and we grieve for the families of the educators who time and time again put themselves between bullets and their students.  Now, more than ever, we stand ready to speak out and mobilize to protect our students and communities from further pain and needless violence.

NEA devotes considerable resources to addressing school safety, including professional development for our members in school safety, bullying, bias/harassment, and cultural competence.  We are running a “Bullyfree: It Starts with Me" campaign to ensure educators have the tools they need to identify and prevent bullying, which is frequently a source of isolation and depression for students and which can be a precursor to violent behavior.  We have a world-class school crisis guide (http://crisisguide.neahin.org/crisisguide/) and several state affiliates have crisis response teams that are frequently deployed to help in tragic circumstances.  But, preventing future tragedies requires more than this.  It requires a comprehensive approach and a real commitment from our federal, state, and local elected officials to stand up and do what is necessary to protect our children. 

NEA supports a multi-pronged approach to gun violence prevention.  As President Obama said, there is “no single piece of legislation that will solve this problem.”  If Congress were to pass legislation requiring background checks for every gun purchase, the nation would still need enough mental health services and professionals making diagnoses about individuals (and states submitting those records to NICS) to make the background check system reliable and effective.  Furthermore, since schools are often the places in which some of the first signs of mental health issues can be spotted and diagnosed, it is all the more important to ensure adequate numbers of qualified school personnel to make these diagnoses and/or spot warning signs of potentially problematic or violent behavior.  Complicating matters, there is a huge shortage of these professionals in our public education system (from pre-k through higher education), which impedes the ability of school personnel to ensure a safe, secure, respectful, and nurturing learning environment. 

NEA’s recommendations for immediate federal action include:

  • Common-sense gun violence prevention.  We strongly support closing loopholes and requiring background checks for every gun purchase in America — be it retail, online, or at a gun show.  In addition, we support legislation introduced by Senator Feinstein (S.150) to reinstate the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity clips.  We believe assault weapons and high-capacity magazines should be used by soldiers and police officers.  These commonsense measures are very much in line with the views of NEA members. A new NEA member poll indicates overwhelming support for stronger gun violence prevention laws, including background checks and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazine clips.  These measures will rally broad community support, especially when coupled with a greater focus on mental health and safe, secure, and supportive school environments. 
  • Greater emphasis on mental health.  We need a national focus on mental health, including development of better screening tools to identify, evaluate, and treat mental illness.  In addition, we should provide more funding for School-Based Health Centers and providers to staff the centers.  We also must address the current lack of parity in insurance for mental health services.
  • School safety and student support.  We must make our schools safer, not only by enhancing their physical security and making sure they are prepared to respond to emergencies like a shooting, but also by creating safer and more nurturing school climates that help prevent school violence. 

To do this, however, we must let communities decide for themselves what kind of personnel and assistance they need to ensure safety.  To help schools, we should provide more resources for school counselors and school psychologists, and training for school personnel in not just school safety, but in diagnostic training to spot warning signs for mental health issues and/or potential for students to engage in high-risk or anti-social behavior. Funding for school security personnel, like school resource officers, could also be an option conditioned on local community support and appropriate training for officers and school personnel together, including on bullying, cultural competence, positive behavioral supports, and appropriate classroom management. 

We can also support students, giving them access to programs that teach conflict management, an appreciation of diversity, and strategies for being a part of a school community.  And, we can increase our focus on bullying prevention.  We can make available resources and technical assistance from emergency preparedness experts to retro-fit or make school entrances and facilities safer.  

We must note that America’s educators resoundingly reject the notion of arming school employees as a means of ensuring school safety.  Only 22 percent of NEA members polled favor a proposal to allow teachers and other school employees to receive firearms training and allow them to carry firearms in schools, while 68 percent oppose this proposal (including 61 percent who strongly oppose it.)  

We thank you for the opportunity to submit these comments.  We look forward to working with the Committee to ensure that we never again will have to grieve the loss of children and educators to senseless gun violence.   

Sincerely,

Mary Kusler
Director of Government Relations