The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

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July 20, 2013

Schools enact more security measures

— A mass killing involving four or more victims happens once every two weeks on average in the U.S., according to a USA Today study published after 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012.

In a matter of minutes on that chilling New England morning, Newtown joined Littleton, Colo., and Blacksburg, Va., as towns now associated more with mass shootings than their scenic communities and tranquil campuses.

A link to mental illness with the shootings at Columbine High School or Sandy Hook has not been proven, but the Virginia Tech shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, 23, was diagnosed with a severe social anxiety disorder as a teen. Two years before he fatally shot 32 people, Cho was court-ordered to receive outpatient psychiatric treatment.

In 2011, Jared Loughner, 24, who killed six people in Tucson, Ariz., had depression in high school and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. A year ago, James Holmes allegedly killed 12 moviegoers and injured 58 in Aurora, Colo. His defense attorney said the 24-year-old is mentally ill.

Alabama response

In a state-by-state report four years ago and updated in 2011, the National Alliance for Mental Illness dropped a “D” grade for the quality of mental health care available nationwide.

Alabama was among 20 states to earn a below-average grade after NAMI noted a 36 percent drop in the General Fund’s mental health budget from 2009 to 2012. Alabama was also classified as having fewer psychiatrists in relation to population than a majority of states.

NAMI reports that in any given year, one in four American adults incur a mental disorder, while the American Academy of Pediatrics estimates one in five children have a diagnosable mental illness.

Given these bleak numbers and diminished funding for mental health, Alabama officials in education, law enforcement and politics met in Montgomery earlier this year to discuss ways to lessen the odds of a school shooting.

Following a joint hearing by the state Senate and House education policy committees, a school security report was released April 16 with recommendations for active shooter and intruder drills, criminal punishment for bus trespassers and providing school boards with the opportunity to hire certified school resource officers.

The report also advised an increase in funding for Virtual Alabama, an Internet-accessible tool that allows law enforcement and school officials to view existing infrastructure data and imagery. The report also stated school systems should form a school safety task force that meets regularly.

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