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W.Va. lawmakers to look at mental health, school safety

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In response to the Newtown, Conn., school shootings, West Virginia lawmakers plan to let the federal government take the lead on any possible gun control legislation.

But at the state level, legislators say they will look at behavioral health funding, school safety and mental hygiene laws in the upcoming session, which starts in February.

"I would not expect the state to consider any kind of ban legislation," Senate President Jeff Kessler said Tuesday. "These kinds of things are better addressed at the federal level, for uniformity."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said he's already heard a "number of proposals floating around."

"Congress can take the strongest step on this," Palumbo said. "Unless there's a national approach, I don't think it's going to be very effective."

House Health Committee Chairman Don Perdue said it doesn't make sense for individual states to pass gun-control legislation.

"The legislative solution has to be something embraced by the entire nation, not something piecemeal across 50 jurisdictions," said Perdue, D-Wayne. "I can't get my mind around the level of horror this has brought to the people of Newtown and to the nation. When your youngest and smallest can't be protected, then it gives you pause that no one anywhere is safe."

State legislators said they've passed numerous "safe schools" bills in recent years. New laws address school design and require schools to have written emergency preparedness plans.

"We should do all we can to make sure our schools are as safe as possible, including increasing law enforcement presence in our schools -- a program that has been curtailed when West Virginia lost federal funding," said House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne.

"As parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, I know all legislators are unified in their desire to stop senseless acts of violence, and having talked to their own local teachers and community leaders, I expect members to have numerous proposals of how to address this," Thompson said.

Delegate Mark Hunt, D-Kanawha, suggested that schools be required to use swipe card systems. Teachers and students would use such cards to enter schools. At Sandy Hook Elementary School, the gunman broke a window and jumped into the building before going on a shooting rampage.

In Kanawha County, some schools have swipe card security systems, while others have unlocked doors, allowing public access -- without permission -- during school hours.

"Why shouldn't every teacher and every student have a swipe card?" Hunt said. "If you don't have a swipe card, you don't get in."

Hunt said he would oppose policies -- such as those proposed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- that would allow school districts to decide whether teachers and principals could carry guns on campus.

"I don't think the solution is bringing guns to schools," Hunt said. "We already ban guns on school property. Nobody can have a gun within so many hundred feet of a school."

State legislators hope to pry loose additional funding for behavioral health treatment in the upcoming session. Connecticut police believe gunman Adam Lanza suffered from mental health problems, including personality disorders.

"I would say we haven't done a great job funding mental health initiatives," Palumbo said. "We need to take a hard look to see if we can find more funds going forward."

Perdue said West Virginia has never funded mental health treatment at a "high-enough level."

"Behavioral health is a huge knot," Perdue said. "And we haven't done a good job of untying it."

Kessler said the state needs to spotlight "protection, education, detection and treatment."

"We need to have treatment early on so we don't see things escalate into a senseless tragedy," Kessler said.

David Clayman, a South Charleston psychologist, said behavioral health professionals and law enforcement authorities in West Virginia should sit down and talk about the Connecticut shooting.

"We have to find ways to address something like this without overreacting," Clayman said Tuesday. "It has to be a compassionate approach, but not Pollyannaish. Most mentally ill people don't kill."

A state legislative committee has spent the past year studying West Virginia's mental hygiene policies. Under state law, people involuntarily committed to a state mental hospital are prohibited from ever owning a firearm.

Some mental health commissioners have declined to commit people because of the gun ban, according to testimony at a hearing earlier this year.

State lawmakers expect the committee to recommend changes to the state's mental hygiene laws before the start of the upcoming legislative session.

"Here in West Virginia, we have in this past year grappled with issues of mental health and acts of violence," Thompson said. "I'm sure we will investigate how we can prevent lethal weapons from falling into the hands of the mentally ill."

House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said it would be best to wait before tossing out specific proposals in response to the Connecticut school shooting.

"We really need to step back. The country needs to mourn what happened," Armstead said. "It's too soon to say we're going to do this or that. After we step back, we can think thoughtfully about what policies need to be looked at."

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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