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Neal talks counseling, school safety, gun control with HWRSD

Date: 2/7/2013

By Chris Maza

WILBRAHAM —Congressman Richard Neal stopped by the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District's (HWRSD) offices on Jan. 31 to congratulate Superintendent M. Martin O'Shea and members of his staff and discuss counseling efforts in education.

The conversation, however, soon turned into a frank one regarding school safety and gun control.

Neal started his visit with a brief meeting with the press and O'Shea to recognize HWRSD for its receipt of the Elementary Counseling Grant from the U.S. Department of Education, which was originally announced in October 2012.

The grant, he explained, totaled $1.1 million — approximately $366,000 per year through 2015 — and would allow the district to hire additional counseling staff at the district's elementary schools.

"It was done on a competitive basis and that means that the grant was well prepared and the staff did a fine job of putting together all of the details," Neal said. "It's a nice announcement for the school district."

O'Shea said that winning the grant was a big part of the district's focus on child development beyond the classroom.

"I think one of the things we've tried to attend to as a school district over the last decade even is the social and emotional well-being of kids with the understanding that their academic success is really linked to their social and emotional well-being," he said. "This grant will really allow us to expand the access that students have to counseling services."

He went on to say that the district is in the process of hiring three new school psychologists.

"It will also help strengthen our partnerships with area mental health agencies [and] provide opportunities to train staff to create positive learning environments" he said. "There are a lot of components to the grant that will build a fantastic infrastructure for us to support kids."

Neal then met with member of O'Shea's leadership team, including Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Timothy Connor, Assistant Superintendent for Business Beth Regulbuto, Minnechaug Regional High School Principal Stephen Hale, Mile Tree School Principal Rose Bronson, Gina Kahn, project director for Safe Schools/Healthy Children, as well as members of the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School Committee, who explained some of the ways through which the district has improved its services for students.

The conversation eventually turned to school safety and incidents such as the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Neal said that a focus on early intervention and identifying potential emotional and psychological issues would be an effective way to help prevent such tragedies.

"I think there is a path forward with early intervention and a lot more psychological testing and addressing a lot of these issues in their infancy rather than letting them bubble over," he said. "Let's be frank, you're not going to get an assault weapons ban, but you can address these other issues."

Connor asked Neal whether he thought the National Rifle Association (NRA) would be willing to take an active role in supporting mental health initiatives as opposed to campaigns supporting the Second Amendment or the organization's initial proposal in the wake of the recent shooting to create National School Shield Emergency Response Program, which focuses primarily on building security.

"I'm hoping that will be their end position, but it's certainly not their opening position because they have benefitted from saying, 'No,' to everything and they build their membership on that basis," he said.

School Committee member Marc Ducey wondered if there was a chance the NRA would soften their stance on gun control to allow certain provisions, to which the congressman said the outlook was doubtful.

"The NRA's position has been, 'Once we head down this road, you're going to take the guns away from us,' so they resist every step," he said.

Neal added that it has never been his position to take away guns and that "law-abiding citizens need not worry" about any legislation he would support.

"People feel very strongly about [the right to bear arms] and I don't see that changing, but I also think that doesn't mean we can't do mental health background checks, it doesn't mean we can't shut down some of the loopholes at gun shows where there are no checks whatsoever," he said.

O'Shea said that while the primary focus of the public and the media in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting has been school security, he hoped the conversation would eventually turn to mental health.

"In the days following Newtown, the conversation shifted toward security and gun control, rightfully so, I guess. That issue needs attention, but there wasn't a lot of conversation around mental health supports that we value in terms of really keeping schools safe," he said. "The NRA has almost co-opted the discussion."

To that, Neal replied, "It's very hard to have a conversation when the opening position is the closing position. There is no give and take."

O'Shea also spoke of the value of the student resource officers provided by the Hampden and Wilbraham police departments and asked Neal if he felt any additional support for those programs could be expected. Neal said that he felt that may be one area that both sides of the gun control issue could agree.

"I think there is that opportunity now," he said. "I think the groups that resist any kind of control on weaponry can safely fall back to the position of, 'OK, let's increase the following.' That's typically the way that legislation works we can't do exactly what I want, but we'll concede the following."