By Senator James Skoufis
I recently met a father who has taken to placing an unconventional item in his daughter’s backpack each day before school: a large dinner plate. He hopes it will provide some added protection in the event that an active shooter trains their sights on her.
In the wake of Newtown, Parkland, Uvalde, and countless other mass tragedies in schools, students and parents are repeatedly thrown into the center of an ideological tempest that’s become remarkably predictable. Violent and senseless tragedy occurs, voices on either side of the aisle express moral outrage mixed with a heavy dose of finger-pointing, lawmakers jockey for real solutions, and the media moves on. But the specter of these tragedies does not.
Gun violence is now the leading cause of death for children under 18. Specifically in schools, the trauma of an active shooter experience extends not just to those injured and their families. It ricochets across the internet, taking over the social media feeds of students who find themselves thinking that could be me tomorrow, of parents who find themselves thinking please don’t let that be my child.
This communal trauma is real and growing; over 60% of teens say they’re worried about a shooting occuring at their own school*. But there are things we can do to make our schools markedly safer right now, and steps we can take to address this anxiety.
Protecting our kids shouldn’t mean tasking our overworked educators with carrying a firearm. In fact, 7 out of 10 parents oppose arming our teachers*. But ask any parent if an armed officer with specialized training in youth violence prevention, adolescent brain development, and cyber safety should serve in their child’s school and you’ll get a much different answer.
School Resource Officers (SROs) are specially trained active duty or retired law enforcement officers whose sole directive is to protect students and faculty, and their employment in schools jumped in the wake of the Columbine shooting. The challenge of developing SRO programs, though, is that they’re often created at the local level between schools and police departments, and staffing/training up those positions can be cost-prohibitive. One solution to this challenge is to hire retired law enforcement officers with a wealth of on-the-job experience at far less cost than an active-duty officer, but existing red tape in state law makes that difficult. My legislation to establish New York’s first comprehensive, statewide SRO training and implementation program would eliminate the many hiring/compensation hurdles that currently exist and increase specialized training for a corps of future SROs with diverse backgrounds and lived experiences.
Another move states can and should take right now is to enact or expand ‘red flag’ laws; my expansion legislation was just signed into law a few weeks ago. Red flag laws are a key tool that keep guns out of dangerous hands by appealing to the courts when an individual poses a threat to themselves or their community, but very few licensed professionals had the right to file for a court order under the law–until recently, only law enforcement, educators, and family members could do so. My bill extends that capability to healthcare and mental healthcare professionals, many of whom are in the most direct contact with dangerous individuals before tragedy strikes.
At the local level, school districts’ responses in the wake of mass violence – be that improving front-entry security measures, updating door locks, adding security cameras, informing the public about future active threats, or even what support services are provided following tragedies – largely rest in the hands of school boards. But parents must have a seat at the table. Show up to local Board of Education meetings, meet with administrators and board members one-on-one, and organize fellow community members to make your voices–and your safety priorities–heard.
Finally, we must address the student mental health crisis head-on. New York has announced unprecedented levels of funding for improved mental health training for faculty and extensive wraparound services for students in the past year, but we need all of our stakeholders to boldly confront these issues–including the well-financed social media companies that catalyze many of these tragedies and have the technology to prevent them. The lasting toll of this trauma and persistent anxiety, and how it manifests as these children eventually become parents themselves, won’t be known for many years. When it comes to addressing the emotional resilience of our students, we can’t afford to wait.
Senator James Skoufis represents New York State Senate District 39 and is seeking re-election in the new State Senate District 42, which encompasses much of Orange County.