I was in the basement of the house with the body of a 17 year old boy who had just hung himself from his closet door. I had to lift him up so that the coroner could remove the belt from his neck. With my arms around his lifeless body I could feel the full weight of him. Upstairs his mother was waiting on us to bring her son up so that she could say goodbye to him. The pain in her eyes and face were expressing a suffering too intense for humans to fully digest. The sad reality is that she did not have to feel that way. Her anguish was unnecessary. As responsible members of a civilized community we have to ask ourselves, how do we prevent this?
The New Albany Floyd County Consolidated School Corporation (NAFCS) has offered up a School Safety Referendum for a community vote during the May elections. This simply means they are asking the community if they are willing to pay a little bit of extra taxes to help ensure that our schools are safe. NAFCS is proposing splitting the money generated between two subcategories. Under the proposal, 30% of the money will be spent on physical security such as cameras, doors, fencing, radio system enhancements and more. The remaining 70% will be allocated to human resources. This would include, but not be limited to, School Resource Officers (SRO), social workers, psychologists, behaviorists, a full time Safety and Security coordinator (something they don’t have now) and staff training.
So that you can better understand the position I am coming from, I will give a brief history of myself. I have lived in Floyd County for the vast majority of my life and graduated from Floyd Central High School. I have been a police officer for 18 years. Seven of those years I was a School Resource Officer, seven years I was a Detective, and for the other four years I have been a general Patrolman. I have been a Certified Indiana Safe School Specialist. I was recognized by the National Association of School Resource Officers as a Practitioner of School Safety. Some of my life passions are for school safety and educating children.
Now let’s get to the point. I have heard one recurring area of contention in regards to the referendum. Citizens have expressed concerns, not about whether the referendum is a good idea or not, but rather if the 70/30 split is the right way to handle the money. Many people would like to see the majority of the money go to physical security instead of mental health services. Let’s dive deeper into that specific question.
I doubt any reasonable person would deny that there are children in every community that are in desperate need of mental health services. Someone may ask, why is this the school’s problem or why should I pay extra taxes for that when I would prefer to have armed cops in every school. I totally get it, I do. I am not saying that I don’t support the idea of an officer in every school, I do. If I were asked if more SROs were needed (in addition to the three they are adding) I would argue in the affirmative. So, why would I also support the idea of spending such a large slice of the money on mental health services such as counselors and psychologists? To explain I would like to talk about another topic for a moment. If you can bear with me you will see the connection, I promise.
In 1971 President Nixon announced that we were going to “war” with drugs. The Center for Disease Control says the casualties in this war (overdose deaths) from 1999 to 2017 were more than 702,000. That’s more deaths than WWI and WWII combined. Since the beginning of this war countless politicians have been elected on a platform forged out of a “tough on crime” stance. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the U.S. prison population in 1971 was 198,061. By the end of 2017 the population was 1,489,400. That is a seven and a half fold increase in incarcerated Americans. That would be all well and fine if it had solved the drug problem in this country. It hasn’t. The drug problem in our country is worse than it has ever been. Why is that? In reality the solution to our nation’s drug problem is simple.
The drug trade works through the most basic tenets of the free market capitalist economy, supply and demand. The war on drugs for years, and at the cost of trillions of dollars, focused almost exclusively on the supply side. Get Pablo Escobar at all cost. Hunt down El Chappo. It hasn’t worked. The war ignored the demand side. The solution is easy. Destroy the demand side and the supply side dies on its own. If you don’t have customers, you don’t have a product. Ask MySpace about it. Where things get hairy is when you try to decide how to go about destroying the demand side. I won’t pretend to be an expert in that area but I know the “tough on crime” approach of the last 50 years has not worked.
I see school safety and security in much the same light. We have a problem with school shooters, mall shooters and movie theater killers. We can put a four man swat team at every school in this country and I can guarantee the rate of school shooting will drop. This would effectively address the symptom of the bigger problem, but does it really address the problem? This is the same attack plan as the “get tough” approach. If you go to the doctor with back pain and he gives you a script for an opioid painkiller, your back no longer hurts, but is it fixed? By the way, we have a whole generation of drug addicts born out of this very scenario. We can reduce school violence with hard security measures, I promise you, but what are the unknown side effects of not addressing the real problem. We know the side effects of opioid therapy, don’t we?
Over 18 years as an officer I have seen a generation grow up with problems that were not fully addressed when they were kids. They become adults who are shopping at the grocery with you and your kids. They are at the gas station with you. They don’t disappear after school, they just get older and their problems grow more dire. In 2007 a 15-year-old Floyd Central student murdered Officer Frank Denzinger. He then killed himself. It did not have to happen. In 2013 two former NAFCS students (ages 18 and 19) brutally murdered a couple as they slept inside of their Harrison County residence. It didn’t have to happen. These kids had problems while they were in school that were not addressed because the resources were not there to address them. I, of course, can’t say that mental health services in the schools would have prevented these incidents, but it doesn’t hurt to try. If it does work, even some of the time, is it not worth it? Would the community not be safer as a whole? Wouldn’t this in turn make our school safer?
We have a country suffering from a dramatic mental health crisis. The problem is so massive I don’t even know where to start, but you have to start somewhere. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that by 2021, 91% of people will attend public school. I know of no other mechanism where you can effectively reach that large a portion of our society. A safety problem already exists and we need to physically secure our school now, but we can’t sell out for safety today at the cost of our tomorrow. Imagine a world where kids don’t feel so disconnected that they have to kill their peers. Where they don’t have to hang themselves from a belt. A world where people don’t feel the need to use substances because they don’t know how to deal with the reality of their situation. Imagine a world where every kid is given the mental tools they need to become a functioning productive adult. Now ask yourself, how do we get there? I’ll propose that this is not a School Safety Referendum at all but a Gateway to a Safer Community Referendum.
Thank you and vote yes on May 5th.