SXSW EDU Panelists: Address Both Gun Policy and Mental Health for School Safety

Gun policy reform is the best way to address school safety, according to experts on a panel in Austin.

Children arrive to Flores Middle School for the first day of classes in Uvalde on Sept. 6. (Evan L’Roy/The Texas Tribune)

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For 24/7 mental health support in English or Spanish, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s free help line at 800-662-4357. You can also reach a trained crisis counselor through the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988.

Kimberly Mata-Rubio sat before a crowd on Thursday at the Austin Convention Center, hands tightly clasped to tell a story about the darkest day of her life, when she knew her daughter was one of the shooting victims at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde.

The crowd intently listened as she described the scenes of chaos and confusion that surrounded that day when 19 students, including her 10-year-old daughter, and two teachers were killed by a gunman in the deadliest school shooting in Texas history.

“The days after were just filled with questions. How did this happen to her? How did this happen to me? How did this happen to us?” Mata-Rubio said while her voice quivered with emotion.

Mata-Rubio was one of three keynote speakers for a SXSW EDU school safety panel, held in partnership with The Texas Tribune, that raised questions about gun policy, social media and mental health using the backdrop of the tragic May 24 school shooting.

Nine months ago, she found herself part of an ever-growing community of parents who have lost their children to school shootings.

“It was comforting to meet them in a way. There is no judgment and they share this pain and they understand,” Mata-Rubio said about meeting other parents whose children died in school shootings. “It’s also terrifying because they are a mirror of what my future is and there is so much pain still. That you never get better. That you will walk around with this pain until your time is over and you are reunited with your loved one again.”

Odis Johnson Jr., executive director of the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, and Nick Allen, a professor at the University of Oregon and director of the Center for Digital Mental Health, both spoke about the need for gun policy changes before trying to address mental health.

“Very often mental health is used as an alternative to gun safety policy, but these things must work together,” Allen said.

In the past six decades, the state has experienced at least 19 mass shootings that have killed a total of nearly 200 people and wounded more than 230 others.

Yet state leaders have repeatedly voted against measures that would limit access to guns, opting instead to ease restrictions on publicly carrying them while making it harder for local governments to regulate them.

“There are thousands of laws on the books across the country that limit the owning or using of firearms, laws that have not stopped madmen from carrying out evil acts on innocent people,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in a prerecorded speech to the National Rifle Association just three days after the Uvalde shooting.

But on Wednesday, senators passed its first bill of this legislative session — one that would close a loophole in state law that had allowed gun sales to people who were involuntarily hospitalized for mental illness between the ages of 16 and 18. The gunman responsible for the Uvalde mass shooting had not been previously hospitalized but did have a history of mental illness.

The term “aggrieved entitlement” was used multiple times during Thursday’s discussion to describe the mindset of certain school shooters.

“Often the person has a sense they were owed or deserved something from life that they haven’t received,” Allen explained.

Allen said many men who fit this description do not seek mental health assistance in the first place because they view it as a weakness or a challenge to their manhood.

“Different kinds of programs that help identify these particular young men who are isolated and disassociated might help. It would also be very good if they didn’t have access to guns,” Allen said.

The state’s Republican leaders have focused on mental health and school safety as the policy response to the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, mostly resisting gun-control measures.

Texas leaders agreed last year to dedicate more than $100 million in state funds to boost school safety and mental health services following the Uvalde massacre. Nearly half the money — $50 million — is going toward bullet-resistant shields for school police officers, while an additional $17.1 million will go to school districts to buy silent panic alert technology.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan announced his support this week for several bills addressing gaps in school safety, one of which would require school districts to adopt active-shooter preparedness plans. The bill would require districts to send maps of each campus to the Texas Education Agency, provide opportunities for law enforcement to conduct walk-throughs of all buildings and lay out the costs necessary to meet the state’s established safety standards.

“Schools in the top third of the nation for their use of cameras, school resource officers and other security measures had lower mathematical scores and college-going rates than the [schools] in the lower third for security measures,” Johnson said. “The primary mission of schools is to educate and equip kids to be successful, healthy and happy, and what we have done is double down on surveillance technology that undermines that mission. Students shouldn’t feel like suspects.”

All three speakers agreed that in order for there to be real change, the gun reform issue will have to be taken on in the political realm.

Last year, President Joe Biden signed into law the first major gun safety legislation passed by Congress in nearly 30 years. The legislation includes incentives for states to pass so-called red flag laws that allow groups to petition courts to remove weapons from people deemed a threat to themselves or others.

“Legislation was a breaking point. It’s not where we need to be, but the framework is there. The essential components are now there,” Johnson said as the crowd cheered. “The problem has been that for a long time, we have lacked the political will to do this and the only solution to this is a political solution.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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