Column: Yes, gun control. But here’s another critical measure to keep us safe

Students gather at a memorial at Pine Trails Park in Parkland, Fla., to remember those who were killed and injured Wednesday in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The day after the Florida school massacre, I was on a plane and kept hearing the faint sounds of gunfire.

I flinched the first couple of times, then calmed down when I realized the noise was coming from young folks shooting up virtual enemies in video games.

If I try really hard, I guess I can see how those games might be fun for about five minutes. But we’re talking about a form of addiction here, and at the risk of sounding like the grumpy uncle, that ain’t healthy.


It’s hard to establish irrefutable evidence of a connection between virtual violence and the real thing. But as we see more horrifying mass shootings at schools, concerts and elsewhere — along with the far more deadly daily carnage of the unsensational firearm-related murder and suicide — it’s clear something is horribly wrong in this country.

The first problem is obvious.

We have a ridiculous amount of weapons in circulation, thanks to the spineless, blood-on-their-hands lawmakers owned by the National Rifle Assn. Periodic calls for greater gun control seldom advance, no matter how many innocent children are murdered by people with military-style weapons purchased legally.

But given the fact that the gun lobby usually wins these battles, despite more than 150 school shootings in the last decade, what else can be done besides the usual calls for national prayer and mourning?

There’s no fool-proof remedy, and no solution that doesn’t involve trade-offs. You can’t round up everyone who looks peculiar or seems angry, nor can you predict behavior with any certainty.

But it would help if warnings about dangerous behavior were properly investigated, and the FBI has admitted that didn’t happen in Florida. The agency failed to probe a January tip that a young man had bought weapons and threatened a family member, and that same guy is accused of opening fire on his former classmates Wednesday in Florida, killing 17.

Shooters in such cases aren’t necessarily mentally ill, and aren’t always young people, as we were reminded by the 64-year-old man who killed 58 people in Las Vegas in October. But the human brain undergoes changes from the teen years into the early 20s, when mental illness and emotional problems often manifest, so it’s critical to have enough counselors and mental health professionals at schools and colleges.


When my flight landed, I caught the tail end of a radio interview on KNX with Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, talking about the Florida shooting in the context of shortages of school nurses and counselors. So I called him to see what I’d missed.

Caputo-Pearl said 57% of California school districts do not have full-time staff nurses, and although the American School Counselor Assn. calls for a 250-to-1 student counselor ratio, most states have much higher workloads.

“California is at 945 to 1,” said Caputo-Pearl.

“We’ve got proposals on the bargaining table right now to increase nurse staffing, counselor staffing, psychiatric social worker staffing and the number of school psychologists,” he added.

Caputo-Pearl last taught in 2014, and I asked if he thought the job of teachers and other school staffers is complicated like never before because students are distracted by digital obsessions and dark influences.

“I can tell you it’s very difficult, dealing with electronics and the internet,” he said. “The cauldron gets all the more explosive when you add hate groups into it, and access to hate groups through the internet.”

Michael Pobanz, an L.A. Unified School District psychologist for 18 years, said he and his colleagues spend a huge amount of their time interviewing students and writing reports on those who need special education placement, but not as much time on the social and emotional needs of other students.


“In general, our workload is too high,” said Pobanz. He said he experienced “the worst stress of my career” during a former assignment to a school where he was too overwhelmed to respond immediately to requests for help with struggling students.

Frances Marion, a psychiatric social worker for LAUSD and a UTLA representative, sounded exhausted Friday afternoon following another week of overwhelming demand for her services. Psychiatric social workers typically have thousands of students at multiple schools in a given week, she said. Where they work is based less on a district directive, she said, and more on which schools can scrape up discretionary funds while choosing between critical support resources and basic supplies.

“Every day, it’s trying to decide who the biggest safety concern is because of domestic violence, abuse, self-injury or suicidal ideation,” Marion said. “Getting to prevention and early intervention with kids who have more minor symptoms falls to the wayside.”

I asked what kind of issues she typically sees in her students.

“Families are in crisis because they can’t afford housing, they’re living in unsafe living conditions, they’re doubled and tripled and quadrupled up with other families, they’re working multiple low-wage jobs which means they don’t have time to be with kids who need guidance and nurturing,” said Marion.

Like I said, preventing senseless gun violence in a country that has more weapons than people will never be easy.

But that’s no reason to stop fighting for sensible gun restrictions, more comprehensive mental health services and more support for students growing up in a culture of digital addiction and social dysfunction.


Bridgette Robinson, a teacher on leave from Sal Castro Middle School this year, said she needed a break from the shortage of resources for troubled students and the extra work and pressure she endured because of it.

“Students should have more access to more counselors and more mental health services, because if they have someone to talk to, they will,” Robinson said. “That’s the bottom line.”

Robinson has been in the news lately following a shooting Feb. 1 at Castro. Her former student, 12-year-old Issa Al-Bayati, was shot in the head and is still recovering.

A teen girl was shot in the wrist.

And a 12-year-old girl was charged with being a minor in possession of a semiautomatic pistol.

Issa and his family came to the U.S. after his father was killed in Iraq, according to Robinson.

The family moved here thinking it would be safe.

Get more of Steve Lopez’s work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez