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Tim Blagg

Averting future tragedies

It’s time to buckle down and tackle school safety

On Dec. 14, 26 people, including 20 young children, were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. In the wake of that incident, a national debate has begun on a number of topics, directed at attempting to lower the chances of such a terrible thing happening again.

Some thoughts on the subject:

It seems to me there are things that can be done, changes that can be made, that would make our schools — and in fact, our society — safer.

None of these things would make such a massacre impossible, of course.

Humans have been “running amok” for millennia, and nobody is quite sure why. That term stems from Malaysian culture, in which apparently normal young men would suddenly take a weapon and attack bystanders, often committing suicide afterwards. The Malaysians believed a demon had entered into the person.

Today’s version, in which young men suddenly attack targets like schools or malls, are only different in their choice of weapons.

It’s doubtful that any society could come up with a set of laws or procedures that would stop such aberrant behavior.

But I think the current surge of energy created by the Newtown tragedy could be harnessed to make significant changes in three areas:

◆ Standardized school safety

◆ Gun control

◆ The treatment of some mental illness

Security

Today, the responsibility for school safety lies with local school districts. Allocation of money, procedures, etc. can be advocated by state and federal authorities, but it all comes down to the individual towns.

I think state and federal funding should be made available to standardize security precautions, and regulations passed that mandate them in every district in the country.

They should include closed circuit TV cameras throughout the schools and their surrounding property, with monitors in the school office. These used to be quite expensive, but recent innovations have brought computer-based systems within reach of even individual homeowners. The schools can afford them.

The system should include electric door locks (as most of them do now) but with the addition of “panic buttons” in various offices, as well as electronic triggers held by key personnel.

Larger schools should routinely have police officers assigned to them (again, as many do today) to help with police/school liaison, fights, unruly students and threat protection.

Naturally, regular, realistic training should take place with school personnel and emergency responders.

Weapons

Gun control laws MUST be federal. Some now are, but most are left to the states, and the crazy-quilt of regulations is a criminal’s dream. The Second Amendment is paramount, of course, but the right to bear arms does not mean anyone can buy anything without restrictions.

The waiting period now in place is a good rule, as are those in some states that prohibit convicted violent offenders, convicted wife beaters and the seriously mentally ill from purchasing firearms.

Laws mandating secure storage of firearms, like those here in Massachusetts, are a good step forward.

As to “assault weapons” bans, I’ve always been against them, simply because as an experienced marksman and gun expert, I know that the guns covered by them are not measurably different in their deadly effect than those left uncovered.

But I’ve changed my mind. It’s true that most of the things that differentiate an “assault weapon” from another semi-automatic rifle or shotgun are cosmetic, like a combination sight/handle, a pistol grip and so forth. They don’t alter the weapon’s function.

But I’ve noticed that these “Rambo” style accessories seem to attract the weirdoes, perhaps even egg them on into attacks. So I have no objection to the bans, as long as people understand they aren’t a panacea.

And the same goes for large capacity magazines… there’s no real good reason for them among true sportsmen.

Regardless of the details, we must take the opportunity to make the rules nationwide in nature, or we’re just fooling ourselves.

Mental health

First, let’s say that not all of the attacks we’ve seen involve those who are afflicted with any known mental illness. And most of those who suffer from mental disease are no danger to anyone.

In addition, our Constitution guarantees Americans certain rights, and we are all reluctant to deprive anyone of them.

But the sad fact is that certain types of mental illness DO demand some infringement on individual liberties.

That’s because the nature of the disease distorts the patient’s reality, magnifies their fears, turns friends into enemies and the unknown into a terrifying danger. They are no longer able to best judge for themselves how they should be treated.

This is thin ice, but the record is clear. Time and again we hear of parents, doctors, law enforcement officers who are all powerless to insist that a person take the medication that can allow them to function normally. After taking the medicine, the person begins to believe they no longer need it. Or, their illness convinces them that the medicine is poison, and those prescribing it are enemies.

And so they sometimes spiral down into madness, with tragic results.

It’s heartbreaking to see that descent, when modern medicine offers a chance to escape it.

By the same token, too many health insurance plans refuse to pay for the sort of treatment these people need to have a chance at a good life. They will pay for cancer, or for diabetes, but not for schizophrenia.

That’s just plain wrong, and should not be allowed.

We need to change our laws so that in a larger number of cases we must be able to force an individual to take medication, for their own good and for the good of society as a whole — and that’s distasteful.

But the alternative is homelessness, or victimization, or … perhaps … another Newtown, Conn.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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