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Testimony for Gun Violence Prevention Hearing

February 12, 2013

Submitted by the National Education Association to the
Senate Committee on the Judiciary
Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights
 

Thank you for the opportunity to submit comments in conjunction with the Subcommittee hearing on “Proposals to Reduce Gun Violence: Protecting Our Communities While Respecting the Second Amendment.” We commend the Subcommittee 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 last year, to Midland, Alabama just this 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. 

Gun violence affects every community in this nation.  Every day, promising young lives are cut short, leaving behind others who are permanently impacted by the violence around them.  Now, more than ever, we stand ready to speak out and mobilize to protect our students and communities from further pain and needless violence.

Consider this story from an NEA member in Oregon:

“I remember a student who survived a shooting in his early teens.  By the end of his high school career, he was still moving through the world like a ghost, quiet, withdrawn.  He refused to write with a pen.  He made the lines with a pencil only, as if he didn’t believe he could make a permanent mark on the world.  More than once, school has come to a halt after a teenager was killed.  The “lesson” of the day became mortality, hope, sadness, and loss.  It is part of the job, but it is not what is supposed to happen.” 

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.

We were very pleased by the recommendations of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force released last week.  In our letter to Chair Mike Thompson, we commended the Task Force for recommending “an evidence-based approach to supporting a safe learning environment that is tailored to the unique needs of the students and local community.”  We also strongly support the Task Force recommendation that all school personnel must have resources and training to implement safety plans.  Finally, we were very pleased that the Task Force recommended that safety policies “promote a positive school climate that meets both the learning and emotional needs of all students.”  Safer, more nurturing school climates that include positive student supports and anti-bullying initiatives will help students find non-violent alternatives to resolve conflicts and will allow staff to identify and address potential problems before they escalate.   

NEA’s specific 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 most states, convicted felons, domestic violence abusers, and those who are dangerously mentally ill can walk into any gun show, flea market, or even log on to the internet and buy weapons from unlicensed sellers, no questions asked.  It is estimated that over forty percent of gun acquisitions occur in the secondary market. That means that they happen without a background check at a federally licensed dealer.  Gun shows are a major trafficking channel according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, with an average of 130 guns trafficked per investigation, and over 25,000 firearms trafficked in total over one 17-month period alone.  Studies show that 67 percent of gun owners favor background checks for every sale, regardless of location. 84 percent of people who live in a house with a gun (but are not the owner of the gun) favor a background check for every sale, and 80 percent of non-gun owners support this policy.

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. 

These measures are critical to stop the violence.  Consider these reports from NEA activists:

Connecticut — “Our  wonderful son was a student at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC when he was robbed  of  $62 and murdered on his way home from work two and 1/2 years ago.  The gun that killed him was unregistered and illegal.  The teenager who murdered him will spend 42 years in a federal prison for this heinous crime.  Our family is heartbroken and nothing can bring back the sunshine of our lives. We are very angry about the easy way in which anyone can acquire a gun. We would like to see this changed. How many more tragedies will it take to bring about needed legislation?”

Alabama -- “As a professor, it is devastating to experience the deaths of students as a result of gun violence.  And there have been far too many.  [One student] was gunned down outside a restaurant in Huntsville.  [Two others] were also shot.  A speech student in my class was shot outside a McDonalds for no apparent reason.  On campus a student died after a gun accidentally discharged.  It seems after a shooting, when we discuss the situation in class, that almost every student has been touched by gun violence, losing a family member or friend…And most recently, we lost a member who saved the lives of children on the bus in Midland, Alabama”

  • 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, as well as 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.

The need for more counselors is great.  An NEA member from Illinois reports,

“I’ve had four students or former students shot and killed in gun violence.  All related to drugs and gangs in Springfield, Illinois.  Although school instructors recognized these students were facing trouble, there was little in the way of counseling and/or social work assistance available to intervene in the students’ lives.  There are too few resources.”

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.

Emergency plans and communications strategies are critical to ensuring schools and communities react effectively to potential and actual gun violence.  Gun violence prevention is broader than what schools alone can do.  Partnerships within the community are essential to ensure a comprehensive response.  Consider these stories from an NEA member in Idaho —

“Here are two examples of gun violence that I experienced with very different outcomes.  Monday, March 5, 2001, Santana High School, Santee, California.  A freshman brought a weapon to school to retaliate against bullying.  He talked about what he was going to do on Sunday night.  But his friends didn’t tell.  The outcome:  2 dead, 13 wounded.  Spring 2010, Coeur D’Alene High School, Idaho.  A senior who had stolen weapons from a family member was missing.  Schools in the area were notified.  Law enforcement responded.  The student was apprehended as he entered a school parking lot.  The outcome:  zero dead, zero wounded.    The difference in the two stories was the ability to communicate the potential threat.  We need communications systems that allow individuals to report potential acts of violence before they happen.”

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 Subcommittee to ensure that we never again will have to grieve the loss of children and educators to senseless gun violence.