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Pittsfield School Officials Adopt Safe Gun Storage Resolution
By Brittany Polito, iBerkshires Staff
11:31AM / Monday, March 13, 2023
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This article contains language about suicide and gun violence.

PITTSFIELD, Mass.— The School Committee has unanimously voted to adopt a safe firearm storage resolution as an effort to shield its students and staff from gun violence.

The resolution warrants communications to parents, guardians, and students on the importance of secure firearm storage as soon as possible, distributed to each school at least once annually, and included in the district website and student registration materials.

Additionally, it directs the superintendent to update the student handbooks with this information to continue work with local law enforcement, health agencies, and nonprofit organizations on the effort.

Massachusetts law states that a firearm should be locked and unloaded while in a home and vehicle and the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends storing ammunition separately.

Patrie Sardo of the national Be Smart for Kids advocacy group and Vicki Zacharewicz of Berkshire County Moms Demand Action brought the resolution forward. Last month, the newly created Social Emotional Learning and Safety subcommittee voted in favor of it.

"What I really respect about this resolution and what Be Smart has presented with it is that this doesn't infringe on any rights but rather supports those rights by making it safer for everyone around," School Committee member Alison McGee said.

"And I feel like that's a really valuable component of this because many people who are gun owners go through significant training and practice safe measures but it's not necessarily carried over into their social sectors or shared with people in the household who aren't using the firearms."

Though the district's primary focus is to educate its students, she pointed to the importance of reaching further.

"Our responsibility is to educate and even though students are our primary recipients of that education, the families are really directly attached to them and impact how much those students can access that education," McGee said.

"So I think this really fits for me with how our district has been moving forward in trying to really educate families, bring families to a greater awareness of how their responsibility can impact students and other students."

The full committee's approval on Wednesday was preceded by affirmative testimony from community members during open microphone.

In the nine years that former teacher Gabriela Sheehan worked for the district, guns were confiscated from students at her workplace three times: in an elementary, middle, and high school. After each incident, she felt lucky that students and staff survived a potential incident of violence.

"Adopting language in the handbook to support the protection of students and staff through safe gun storage is essential," she said.

"Gun violence has affected hundreds of children and adults in Pittsfield and the trauma of these events is long-lasting. Any action that we take is a step towards a safer community and an acknowledgment that we care about the students and the teachers that are a part of it."

Brian Berkel, board president for the Berkshire Coalition for Suicide Prevention, said this is not a Second Amendment, political, or anti-gun debate. Instead, he said it is anti-suicide and anti-crime.

"I want to make it clear that we understand that being a gun owner does not make someone more vulnerable to depression, or feelings of suicide, or experiencing any other mental health crisis. That being said, we cannot have a conversation about suicide without talking about firearms," Berkel said.

"There are many means by which people die by suicide but having access to a firearm as a chosen means of suicide does increase dramatically the probability that the attempt will be fatal. Having suicidal ideation is not in and of itself terminal, nine out of 10 people who survive a suicide attempt do not go on to die by suicide at a later time. However, nine out of 10 people who choose a firearm as their means of suicide will die. Guns are a powerful and destructive tool. That's their purpose."

As a former detective for the District Attorney's Office and State Police, he reported that firearms contributed to about half of the cases where a person took their own life.

"Theft of unsecured weapons from homes and vehicles is on the rise in large part because of the opioid crisis. Guns are diverted to underground markets and they eventually get used in criminal acts of violence within our communities against our children, against our neighbors, and against our law enforcement," he added.

"So that firearm someone has, they legally have, they legally possessed it, they legally purchased it, can quickly become a deadly tool for criminal behavior once you've lost control of it. Gun owners who don't practice safe storage are significantly more likely to have those guns stolen and they get cycled into the streets."

Berkel said this is a good start to addressing violence on the streets and in schools.

The resolution states that gun violence is the leading cause of death in children and teens, with research done between 2015 and 2019 showing that about 350 children shoot themselves or someone else unintentionally annually, 70 percent of the accidental shootings take place inside the home, and another 1,200 children and teens up to age 19 die by gun suicide each year.

"A lot of the statistics that we've heard are about tragedies affecting children and clearly that is our primary focus but I want to say too that, adopting this resolution is an endorsement of our teachers and our other staff who also deserve to be safe when they come to work each day," committee member Sara Hathaway said.

Her niece started teaching first grade in Detroit this school year and has already quit. One of the things that contributed to her decision was a young student telling her he was going to get a gun and come to her house and shoot people.

"But I remember thinking that's so rude for a child to say that. How would a child even think that? What kind of a household does that child come from that they think they could do something like that? And a week later in Virginia, a 6-year-old brought a gun to school and shot his teacher. So I want to emphasize the community value of this and we've seen some horrors across America. Clearly, the lives of the children are to be treasured and protected, staff, and teachers are to be protected," Hathaway said.

"School shootings affect community investment. When a tragedy like this occurs on a campus in many cases, this community will decide to demolish a building because it holds so many horrible memories for the people who are affected by the shootings. I have friends now who are online remembering buildings at Michigan State University where they took classes and that now are tainted for them. So I hope that we will vote to adopt this resolution in its entirety and that the community will embrace it and rise to the advice that it contains and we will all be better for it."

Vice Chair Daniel Elias believes this is "truly a sensible endeavor" and is proud that the body is entertaining the resolution.

Committee member Mark Brazeau sent out a heartfelt "thank you" to the community partners for the resolution and said it is very well needed in the district as well as continued conversation on the topic.

Chair William Cameron seconded McGee's comment that violence in the United States and in schools will not be solved by such an action but it is an important element.

"If somebody who wants to use a firearm can't get at it, they can't use the firearm and what we heard about the experience of teaching in the Pittsfield public schools where it was not unheard of to encounter the firearm in some way on occasion is very disturbing," he said.

"And the more we can do to encourage gun-owning parents to be cognizant of the fact that they are responsible for the safety of their own children, but also the people who work with their children and the other students in that school that they are responsible for their safety. I think that this is an important thing for us to do."

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. To contact the Crisis Text Line, text HELLO to 741741. More information on crisis hotlines in Massachusetts can be found here.

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