Shedding Light on the Gun Safety Debate
Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law Reporter
Vol. XII, No. 2, May 8, 2013
After months of legislative wrangling and numerous hearings, Congress has put the gun safety debate on hold, for now. However, the debate persists throughout the country, and much of the rhetoric is grossly misinformed and stigmatizes people with psychiatric disabilities. The result? More stigma. More misinformation. Harmful public policy.
As you will read below in this issue of The Reporter, the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law continues to improve legislation, shape media coverage, and inform the public debate. Simply put, it is time to stop demonizing and scapegoating Americans with mental illnesses or intellectual disabilities for things that are virtually unrelated to mental health. These Americans and the nation deserve better: public policy and public debate based on research and facts - not myths and stereotypes.
Moving Mental Health Beyond Myths and Stereotypes
In the gun safety debate, the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law has spearheaded efforts to educate policy makers, their staff, and the media that the debate should focus on the primary causes of gun violence - not mental health or people with psychiatric disabilities (see the last issue of The Reporter). To this end, the Bazelon Center has taken a very public role in challenging harmful myths and stereotypes with research and advocacy. This work is vital to ensure the public debate on gun safety no longer scapegoats people with psychiatric disabilities.
We have developed or helped shape a variety of position pieces to inform the debate. Most recently, in the lead up to a Senate vote on gun legislation, we disseminated a press release highlighting a new, research-focused brief, Wrong Focus: Mental Health in the Gun Safety Debate, to help shape lawmakers’ and the public’s consideration of the issue. This brief garnered attention from many stakeholders. We were pleased to see Kenneth Dudek, president and executive director of Fountain House in New York City, pen an unsolicited op-ed, The Gift Horse of Mental Health Funding, in The Huffington Post, highlighting the brief and its arguments for a much wider audience.
With allied organizations, the Bazelon Center continues to fight misguided and harmful proposals in Washington. These include increasing the presence of armed law enforcement officers in schools and transmitting the names of individuals with representative payees to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System database. We advocate proven alternatives that advance, not impede, opportunities for children and adults with psychiatric disabilities.
School Safety Requires Proven Practices, Not Police
Much of the debate stemming from the Newtown, Connecticut, shootings has focused on how to make the nation’s schools safer. However, a commonly suggested proposal - to increase funding for the presence of armed law enforcement officers in schools - would create a situation that is less safe for everyone. Stationing armed officers in schools has been shown to result in unwarranted and in some cases unlawful discipline of students with disabilities, especially children with mental disabilities, and pushing such children out of school and into the criminal justice system (i.e., the school-to-prison pipeline).
Instead, on education policy Bazelon Center advocates for enforcement of our nation’s civil rights laws and adoption of proven practices - such as school-wide positive behavior supports (SPBS) and school climate plans - that increase student learning and safety.
Existing civil rights laws, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, require schools to identify and serve children with disabilities, including those who struggle with problem behaviors, at an early age. Ensuring that these key laws are enforced, and that resulting services are funded, will lead to positive outcomes for all children.
School climate plans that include school-wide positive behavior supports are evidence-based practices aimed at increasing student learning while preventing problem behaviors through positive reinforcement. Successful SPBS are implemented by teachers, school medical professionals, and administrators who work with students inside and outside the classroom to ensure a safe, positive learning environment for all.
Recently the Bazelon Center and allied organizations coordinated a multifaceted response to draft legislation that would increase funding for armed law enforcement officers in schools. Working with a coalition that includes NAACP/LDF, ACLU, Advancement Project, Open Society Foundations and others, we lobbied congressional staff, drafted suggested language to amend the bill, and, during an Advancement Project press call, spoke about the impacts this bill would have on children with disabilities. The Bazelon Center also issued a press release detailing the evidence-based alternatives we support. Our efforts paid off – the bill failed.
Our staff also recently assisted congressional staff in developing legislative language concerning SPBS. The Senate passed the resulting bill, the Mental Health Awareness and Improvement Act, by an overwhelming vote of 95-2.
The right of people with psychiatric disabilities to serve as a parent is a critical aspect of the Bazelon Center's focus on self-determination. This April, Director of Programs and Deputy Legal Director Jennifer Mathis wrote Keeping Families Together: Preserving the Rights of Parents with Psychiatric Disabilities, for Clearinghouse Review: Journal of Poverty Law and Policy, published by the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.
The Bazelon Center has issued Promise for the Future: How Federal Programs Can Improve Outcomes for Transition-Aged Youth with Serious Mental Health Conditions with an accompanying compendium of facts sheets. The report analyzes federal programs that can provide assistance in meeting the needs of youth and young adults with serious mental health conditions. The information is intended for a diverse audience including policymakers, those assisting youth and young adults (e.g., family members and professionals), and individuals and groups that advocate for improved public policy.
This publication stems from a project with the Transitions Research and Training Center at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. In March, Bazelon Center’s Deputy Director of Policy Elaine Alfano presented on the report at the 26th Annual Children’s Mental Health Conference in Tampa, hosted by the University of South Florida.