School panel takes aim at gun violence

  • Panelists at a forum titled “Beyond Gun Laws” speak at Hatfield Elementary School on Tuesday STAFF PHOTO/DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

  • In this Oct. 2, 2018, semi-automatic rifles fill a wall at a gun shop in Lynnwood, Wash. Since Jan. 1, 2019, no one under the age of 21 in Washington state has been allowed to purchase a “semi-automatic assault rifle,” under a voter-approved initiative. AP FILE PHOTO

  • Anne Thalheimer, of Holyoke, who is a survivor of a school shooting and affiliated with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, speaks during a vigil held in the wake of the Florida shootings Feb. 14 at First Congregational Church of Southampton, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 2/12/2020 12:16:53 AM

HATFIELD — In 1992, Anne Thalheimer was a teenager in her second year at Bard College at Simon’s Rock when her life changed.

“I was writing a paper for his class … and then the phone rang, a voice telling us to turn out the lights, lock the door and get down on the floor,” Thalheimer recalled in front of an audience at Hatfield Elementary School on Tuesday. A classmate had brought a gun to campus and shot one of her friends, Galen Gibson, and her teacher, Ñacuñán Sáez.

Exactly 20 years later, friends messaged her saying not to turn on the news. The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting had just taken place. Now, she said, everyone from “preschoolers to postdocs” knows what to do in the event of a mass shooting.

“We must work to change this, and this is a responsibility that we all share,” she said.

Thalheimer was the keynote speaker at a panel titled “Beyond Gun Laws” put on by Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan and the mental health support organization Hatfield HEADS Up. Panelists included elected officials, the town’s police chief, a middle school student, a researcher from Smith College and a suicide prevention advocate.

The panel was meant to address the ramifications of school violence across the country, how it impacts children, how adults can help young people cope with fear, and the status of gun laws making their way through the state Legislature.

Thalheimer noted that her experience is unusual. Mass shootings are statistical anomalies in the larger picture of gun violence, she said. She pointed to the fact that suicides make up a large portion of gun deaths, and that many gun deaths result from guns not being properly secured.

Around 60 percent of gun deaths are suicides — a fact highlighted by the next speaker on the panel.

“Even though two-thirds of all firearm deaths in this country are suicides, so often, suicide prevention is never brought into the conversation,” said Heather White of the local chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “It should be at the forefront of this conversation, and so often it isn’t.”

Later in the evening, White noted that mental health resources could be much better in western Massachusetts. But she also said that more could be done on the community level. She asked how many people in the room were CPR trained, and when around half of the room raised hands, she observed that people are far more likely to witness someone experiencing a mental health crisis than a situation calling for CPR.

“We as a community can start taking care of each other, learning the signs and learning how to help,” she said. “At the end of the day it’s a lack of hope and a lack of connection. And if we as a community can’t provide that to each other, what are we doing here.”

Lockdown drills

The topic of school-shooting drills was raised several times throughout the evening.

Josh Miller, a Smith College School for Social Work professor who was on the panel, specializes in helping people recover from violence. He said that, often, drills can actually undermine a child’s sense of safety.

“Kids often don’t know the difference between a drill and an actual event,” he said. “I’d be very cautious about exposing kids to really vicarious, potentially violent kinds of situations as much as possible.”

Instead, Miller said that schools should focus on training teachers and staff how to respond to events. Students should be taught to follow the lead of adults in those situations, he added.

“I think that’s probably the best students can do, not just with active shooters,” he said.

The country’s two leading teachers’ unions made a similar case Tuesday. The American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association joined with the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund in calling for an end to unannounced drills or drills that simulate gun violence.

Ava Carter-Meo, a student at Smith Academy, said that over the years protocols have changed in her school. Previously, drills would take place with an administrator announcing a lockdown drill over the intercom. But in recent years, she said “organic lockdowns” — when teachers yell down the hallways to alert others — have been practiced more.

“They want us to be prepared in case we don’t have time and the office can’t do anything about it,” she said.

Hatfield Police Chief Michael Dekoschak was also on the panel, and said that he is personally not a fan of “live drills” that mimic real scenarios. He also brought up gun laws, saying that state’s tight regulations are already good.

“Do we need more laws? I don’t think so,” he said. “We need to enforce the laws that we have.”

Bills in Legislature

State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, and state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, were also on the panel. They both provided a perspective on how the Legislature is addressing gun violence.

Sabadosa noted that there are three bills of note currently pending on Beacon Hill. One would require live fire training for someone to get a concealed weapon permit, and another would ban so-called ghost guns made by an individual with a 3-D printer, for example. A third bill would expand the state’s reporting requirements for gun crimes and trafficking.

Comerford said that such bills need popular support behind them. She also spoke about another bill that died in committee this session, which would have seen doctors asking people whether they have guns in the house.

The idea, she said, was to start a conversation with gun owners about proper gun safety, treating gun violence as a public health issue and engaging people with their primary care physicians to get the resources they need.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at


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