Gun reform panel provides different approaches to reach the same goal: safety in schools

Almost every seat in the Lincoln High School auditorium was filled for tonight’s “Safe Communities, Safe Schools” discussion on gun control; the panel consisted of eight members, ranging from Lincoln City Councilmember Leirion Gaylor-Baird, to LPS Superintendent Steve Joel, to Maia Ramsey, a senior at Lincoln High School.

Though both the panel and audience members hailed from diverse political and racial backgrounds, they all seemed to have the same goal: keeping students safe.

“We spend a lot of time with what we think is the highest district priority, and that’s the safety and security of the children you entrust to us every single day,” Joel said. “However, we have room for improvement.”

So far, Joel said Lincoln Public Schools have implemented video cameras, hall walkers and people to patrol the perimeters of buildings. But to some audience members, these physical changes weren’t enough.

Many called for improved school-based counseling programs to combat mental health issues. After all, according to Katie McLeese Stephenson, panel member and executive director of Lincoln’s Child Guidance Center, one in five children in the U.S. is mentally ill.

First Baptist Church pastor John Harris agreed that the problem stemmed from bullying and technology dependency. Recounting his own memories of growing up in the projects of Saint Louis, he said that the only reason he was successful was because he had his mother to push him and “brothers” to depend on.

“We don’t know each other, and we dont communicate, and we wonder why kids are the way they are. They’re in isolation. And then we go out and we buy them Call of Duty and they become desensitized to life,” he said. “And we wonder why.”

Audience member and military veteran Sean Nichols agreed.

“As long as people can neglect medication, there will be people that can harm society. The only way to stop this is to have people ready to react,” he said.

Panel member and student Ramsey, also president of the NAACP Youth Chapter, disagreed with this solution because it placed too much moral responsibility on school employees.

“The idea of ‘we should arm our teachers?’ First of all, teachers don’t get paid enough for that,” she said. “You’re putting thousands of students at risk with a person who has about 18% accuracy.”

After much debate, McLeese wanted to make something very clear.

“All people who inflict violence are not necessarily mentally ill,” she said. “And nearly all people who do have a mental illness are not violent.”

Some younger audience members agreed, claiming that mental health avoided the real issue: easy access to guns.

“When I don’t want my brother to get candy, I put it somewhere it’s not accessible,” said audience member Morgan Madison, a 15-year-old freshman at Lincoln Southeast High School. Though this is a possibly over-simplified analogy, it received a large round of applause from the crowd.

The standing ovation, however, came after Paul took the microphone. The gawky 20-something introduced himself without a last name, but did share that he was mentally ill and autistic. He referenced Harris’ points on the kids that shut themselves in and lacked social interaction, admitting that he was one of them.

“I think mental health is a great issue to address, but only 2 percent of violent crimes are committed by mentally ill people. What we need to talk about is guns. We need to stop access to guns.”

Though no one could quite seem to agree on whether the solution was more weapons-based or mental-health-based, Watchdogs member Jane Kinsey was concerned with an entirely different issue: the taxes required to pay for these improved mental health and security programs in schools.

“The bottom line is: Who’s going to pay for it?” she asked the panel as she accused their appearance tonight as being a “power grab.”

The auditorium fell silent at first, then echoed with various shouts of “I will!” and “Raise my taxes!”

Then the attention turned to the stage.

“It’s not a power grab…it’s a way of requiring that people from the community meet face-to-face for the betterment of our kids. We have no intention to raise revenue, but to prioritize revenue,” Councilmember Gaylor-Baird said. “Why not invest in the safety of our children?”

Superintendent Joel viewed the spending as a community-based solution that would lead to a stronger school system.

“We can’t do it alone,” he explained to Kinsey. “We don’t have the resources.”

Many audience members were upset that Lincoln Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister wasn’t able to provide a trained officer in every school, which also stemmed from a lack of resources.

Regardless of the causes and costs, almost everyone in the auditorium tonight agreed that that an issue as widespread and complex as gun reform was not black and white.

“The change I want to see isn’t ‘take away all guns’ or ‘keep all guns’,” Ramsey said. “I think everyone is feeling unsafe in our schools, and we’re fed up of talking about it and not seeing any action.

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