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Where mental illness, guns and schools converge

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Law enforcement and education authorities in Jamaica were understandably jolted into action on Monday of this week, when a voice note from a student threatening to carry out a shooting at a secondary school was circulated on social media (see story on page 3).

That threat came just five days after the Valentine’s Day shooting of 17 people at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, which has sparked another round of discussions in that country about gun control, mental illness and school safety.

Shootings such as the one in Florida last week have now unfortunately become common place in United States. Since 1998, there have been 14 shootings at educational institutions there, with a total death toll of 153.

The threat of school shootings in Jamaica should sound alarm bells around the region and here in St Vincent and the Grenadines, given the penchant of Caribbean people to adopt trends, usually negative, from the United States. Particularly worrisome in this instance is the existence here of all the necessary conditions which would make such an occurrence not improbable.

The young man in Jamaica suspected of sending the threatening voice note complained of being ostracized (much like the shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School) and confessed to having attempted suicide more than once. We, like any other society, have our fair share of troubled young people, some of whom have mental health issues. These youngsters stand on the fringes, resentful of their schoolmates, or act out their frustrations with disruptive, violent behaviour. Then, there is the easy availability of illegal guns on our streets and the easy access to classrooms. Those who doubt the easy availability of guns are invited to sit in for just one week at the Serious Offences Court to witness the parade of young people charged with offences related to illegal firearms and ammunition. And while most, if not all of our schools have security guards, those men and women are no match for a deranged individual with a weapon who wishes to enter.

We do not wish such occurrences on the Caribbean or St Vincent and the Grenadines, but to bury our heads in the sand and deny the possibility of a school shooting would be a dereliction of duty by the authorities. The recent incidents call for a comprehensive review of the security systems at our educational institutions by competent professionals and the implementation of recommended safety systems and procedures, as far as is practicable, to keep our children and teachers safe.

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