by Karen R. Effrem, MD
Sadly, the great wisdom contained in Ben Franklin’s maxim, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety” was entirely lost on the Florida legislature. After much political posturing and theater, on March 7th, they passed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas School Safety Act that I warned about in my recent column.
This legislation pleases no one. Liberals wanted much more gun control and a ban on “semi-automatic assault weapons” and did not want to give trained teachers and school staff the option of volunteering to be deputized to carry concealed weapons in order to protect students. Conservatives are dismayed at the gun control measures that passed, raising the age to purchase any firearm to 21 and adding a 3-day waiting period before that purchase.
But the most dangerous and unrecognized part of this bill is the increased psychiatric screening of “at-risk” students and the training of teachers to recognize the signs of mental illness and violence, imposing on them the responsibility to intervene.
Both sides used mental health issues as a scapegoat. Leaving the gun issues aside for a moment, not only will the mental health provisions do little to protect students in schools, they will harm essential liberties like freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, data privacy, and parental autonomy. By greatly increasing the potential for more students to be labeled and drugged with medications like ADHD drugs (which the Parkland shooter was reportedly taking) that are known to be associated with increased hostility and violence, it may also increase the incidence of these horrific events.
There are two aspects of the mental health issues in this bill that especially need more attention.
First is the hypocrisy of saying that it is wrong, dangerous, and too burdensome to give teachers and other school staff the voluntary option to be trained to carry weapons if the sheriff and the school board agree, but not saying the same of turning already overburdened teachers into psychologists to recognize mental health challenges and intervene. It is illogical and dangerous to the majority of other students to have teachers, who are unqualified in this realm, try to do — after only a few hours of training — what psychiatric professionals, who are trained for years, freely admit that they cannot do: predict who will become violent. Here is Dr. Julian Ford, professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut, who had extensively analyzed the life of Newtown shooter Adam Lanza, speaking to the Los Angeles Times about the similarities between Parkland shooter, Nikolas Cruz, and Lanza:
But unfortunately, it’s impossible for any of us to predict who is going to go from being troubled and isolated to actually harming others…
…It really means we can’t rely on prediction and identifying the bad guys. Because we’ll misidentify some who aren’t bad guys, and we’ll fail to identify others who may become bad guys.
Professor Ford also discussed the other huge issue in the Parkland case — intervention when there was already a diagnosis and clear signs of someone being a danger to themselves or others:
Fortunately, in most cases, people who have come to that extreme juncture [that violence in is the only solution] don’t have the access to weapons, or there are people or institutions that intervene to help them.
After Cruz lost his mother, the institutions in his life clearly failed him. Mental screening would not have stopped him, because he was already identified as mentally ill and under treatment for both ADHD and depression. The school, the sheriff, the FBI, and the Department of Children and Families were all notified and yet failed to deal with his actions — which were both felonious and qualified him for involuntary examination under Florida’s Baker Act.
Ann Coulter quoted Cruz’s social media posts threatening to kill various classmates:
At least three students showed school administrators Cruz’s near-constant messages threatening to kill them — e.g., “I am going to enjoy seeing you down on the grass,” “Im going to watch ypu bleed,” “iam going to shoot you dead” — including one that came with a photo of Cruz’s guns. They warned school authorities that he was bringing weapons to school. They filed written reports. (sic)
Threatening to kill people is a felony. Either the felony arrest or the involuntary mental health exam under the Baker Act would have caused him to fail the background check and prevented his firearm purchase. The reason these crimes were ignored have nothing to do with a lack of mental screening, but rather terrible, failed liberal policy.
As Coulter, Jane Robbins and Erin Tuttle of the American Principles Project, and Dr. Susan Berry have all detailed, the failure of the school and the sheriff to act had much to do with federal coercion and bribery via a horrible Obama-era policy to not report, arrest, or otherwise intervene in the crimes of minority or disabled students — all in the misguided name of equity. Here is a great summary of what we know from Robbins’ and Tuttle’s detailed review of this terrible program:
One: The federal government established a policy to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline by keeping troublesome students in school and out of jail. Two: Several federal agencies collaborated to leverage educational efforts, formal guidance, and federal money to incentivize states and local districts to implement this policy. Three: BCPS took bold steps – including entering into an agreement with law-enforcement and judicial authorities – to implement the policy, as a result of which it was awarded several million dollars in federal funding. Four: BCPS was proud of its reduction in contacts with law enforcement after implementing the collaborative agreement and had committed to USED through the School Climate grant to keep those numbers down. Five: A boy with a long history of disturbing behavior throughout his time at the school murdered 17 students [and staff].
Because Republican Governor Rick Scott and the Parkland community have expressed opposition to the Guardian program in the bill that would arm teacher and staff volunteers after extensive training, there is a slim chance that he might veto the bill. Let us hope that this happens, regardless of the reason. This bill is bad policy that will have many harmful, unintended consequences if signed. Let us hope Gov. Scott has the political courage to reject it.
UPDATE: Sadly, Governor Rick Scott signed this complicated and unhelpful bill as this article was being published. How harmful the resulting consequences will be remains to be seen.