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Two years ago today, there wasn't room in any child's mind at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., for anything except chaotic, uncontrolled, off-the-chart emotions.

Abject panic, worry, fear, shock crowded out all else, followed by consuming anguish, horror, grief and disbelief.

Knee-jerks and finger-points were as prevalent as sobs and tears. The "Ban Guns!" battle cry and the "Do Something!" demand went full-volume, amplified by the media and polarized by politicians. The unspeakable crime triggered a flood of questions, a drought of answers.

This week, three members of the MSD school family who lost loved ones offered thoughtful, duly considered advice on how other schools can learn from their personal tragedy.

Writing in Education Week, Tony Montalto and April Schentrup (who both lost children in the shooting) and Debbi Hixon (who lost her husband) made their suggestions without resorting to tired, divisive cliches.

"We believe the best way to stop the next school shooting is to be proactive about prevention," they wrote.

According to the U.S. Secret Service's National Threat Assessment Center, school shooters show many warning signs, including announcing their threats on social media, telling others in person, or writing out their plans. By recognizing those signs, and connecting dots earlier, the authors--all part of Stand With Parkland-The National Association of Families for Safe Schools--believe school officials can take interventionary action and thwart mass shootings before gunfire erupts.

In combination with greater threat assessment and intervention, Stand With Parkland promotes tactical active-shooter preparation. Five key questions every school should ask itself are: Is there an active-shooter policy? Does the school train staff for such a scenario? Does the campus maintain tight access control? Is there a way students and staff can report threats? How are parents notified in the event of a threat?

The authors also support "red flag" laws, more accurately known as extreme risk protection orders (ERPOs), in which courts can grant temporary restrictions on gun ownership and possession if a person has demonstrated threatening, violent or mentally unstable behavior. The Parkland tragedy gave momentum to red-flag legislation, and a dozen states have adopted ERPO laws since 2018, bringing the total number of states with such laws to 17.

A study released this month on the use and implementation of Florida's extreme-risk law in Broward County (where the Parkland shooting occurred) shows there were 255 petitions filed in the county from March 2018 to March 2019.

Ex parte (temporary) orders were granted in every case, and final restrictions approved in 87 percent of the cases. The report also released a few case-study examples, none of which specifically fit the profile of a mass school shooter, but all of which involved behavior suggesting a mental health-related threat of gun violence.

Red-flag laws alone are not ironclad in preventing school shootings. Connecticut was the first state to enact extreme-risk legislation enabling firearm restrictions back in 1999, but that law failed to protect children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 from a former student's deadly attack, even though the gunman had a history of troubling warning signs.

Mass school shootings are still very rare statistical anomalies. The most common way guns are used to kill people is suicide, and recent studies have linked ERPOs to reductions in suicide rates in several states. Further study tracking subjects of extreme-risk orders in Connecticut and Indiana found they were 30 times more likely than the average person to commit suicide.

The most critical factor of red-flag laws is its due process protections. Giving a state the authority to violate a constitutional right without the commission of a crime is not something to be done lightly.

Florida's law, so far, appears to get the balance mostly right. The case studies highlighted in the Broward County research report indicate subjects and behaviors that, left unchecked, could well have led to dangerous and/or deadly criminal outcomes.

One area, particularly, where extreme-risk laws might prove to be a highly effective prevention tool is in domestic abuse. Traditional restraining orders don't work in too many instances, and the last place a gun ever needs to be is in the hands of a suicidal husband with a history of abusing his wife or children.

The fundamental problem with most gun control efforts is they seek to restrict the rights of law-abiding people in the hope of influencing lawbreakers. Law-abiding folk don't make threats on social media about shooting up someplace. Responsible gun owners don't send text messages about "killing everybody" or "seeing you on the other side."

Red-flag laws, crafted properly, can help deliver gun control where it's badly needed: to mentally unbalanced criminals.

Extreme-risk legislation won't solve all gun crime, because a lot of it is still committed by very sane people who simply devalue the sanctity of human life in comparison to their own greed, desires, vengeance, etc.

Today's a tough day for Parkland parents, as the Stand With Parkland authors noted. But their devotion to making schools safer has created some progress. And as more study ensues, more lessons will emerge.


Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.

Editorial on 02/14/2020

Print Headline: DANA D. KELLEY: Preventive focus


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