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School chiefs push for tougher gun laws, more aid for mental health

NEWS12 WESTCHESTER: Newsday Westchester education reporter Meghan Murphy has more on the local response to the Newtown, Conn., shootings. (Dec. 30, 2012)

School superintendents in four Hudson Valley counties are asking lawmakers to support policies that restrict access to weapons and boost mental health services.

The Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents on Saturday released a call to action in response to the deadly school shootings in Newtown, Conn. The council consists of 78 school district leaders from Dutchess, Westchester, Putnam and Rockland counties.

"You don't stop these tragedies when someone is at the schoolhouse door with a high-powered rifle; you stop them before they get to the schoolhouse door," said Louis Wool, council president and superintendent of the Harrison Central School District.

In the days following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, districts temporarily boosted police presence on campus and reviewed security protocols. Some districts made permanent changes to security, such as locking front doors at elementary schools. Others entrusted safety committees with reviews of policies in the coming months.

On Sunday, President Barack Obama said on "Meet the Press" that he plans to put his full weight behind gun control measures, including increased background checks and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity bullet magazines.

"It is not enough for us to say, 'This is too hard so we're not going to try,' " Obama said, noting that Dec. 14, the day of the shootings, was the worst day of his presidency.

Obama also said he was skeptical about a National Rifle Association proposal to put armed security in every school. In general, Hudson Valley school leaders also oppose that proposal.

"We do not want our children walking into fortresses," Kelly Chiarella, region director of the Westchester East Putnam Region Parent Teacher Association, said Dec. 23. "We don't want the schools to become fortresses with metal detectors at the door."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo will call for tighter gun restrictions in the state during his Jan. 9 State of the State address, according to a spokesman.

Local school leaders lauded lawmakers' push for stricter gun control. But Wool said mental health issues must not be left out of the debate. The council says that in the past three years, more than $1.6 billion was cut from state funds for mental health services.

"The approach to this problem needs to be one that's far more comprehensive than gun control," Wool said. "Part of doing better is taking responsibility and taking care to make sure that those who suffer, those who are disaffected, are addressed."

The school officials are backing seven policies:

• Adequate funding for school and community mental health services.

• Restoration of funding for the school resource officers program and other school-community partnerships.

• Preventing individuals convicted of violent crimes from buying or owning guns.

• Preventing individuals with mental health issues from buying or owning guns.

• Banning the sale, import, transfer and ownership of assault weapons.

• Closing the loopholes at gun shows and requiring all gun purchases to include background checks.

• Punishing irresponsible gun dealers.

With The Associated Press

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