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City Council and School Board Examine Safety at Las Cruces Public Schools

May 16, 2018

Las Cruces City Council and school district board members met at Oñate High School to discuss school safety issues including preventing gun violence, strengthening school security and addressing mental health.

The city council voted March 19 to postpone a resolution proposed by District 2 Councilor Greg Smith, which requests state lawmakers to restrict the sale and possession of semi-automatic weapons. Smith said he wrote the resolution to send a strong message to legislators that they need to take action.

“Just simply labeling semi-automatic weapons or firearms is obviously not going to be the right answer,” Smith said. “But I also know that once we send something to the legislators, they’re going to need to take what they get from us and they’re going to need to work with that. So, I don’t think it’s going to be that detrimental for us to send them something that said whatever it is with the emphasis on school safety.”

A largely pro-Second Amendment crowd arrived with signs protesting gun control. Much of the audience anticipated city officials would pass the tabled resolution that night, although it was not listed on the agenda.

Las Cruces Student Advisory Council Chair Cameron Castillo said it’s good that the district is hosting meetings to gather public input about school safety relating to mass shootings but said he feels there’s not enough discussion about mental health reform for schools.

“I think one of the main problems in these issues, these tragic events that we see in Parkland or even before that in Newtown is that it’s a mental health issue and we need to make sure that these students are identified and provided the proper care within the school,” Castillo said. “It might take up some state funding dollars but we need to make sure that all students feel safe and secure and have an outlet to talk to when they’re on our campuses no matter what.”

Las Cruces Student Advisory Council Chair Cameron Castillo speaks to members of the city council and school board at a joint work session at Oñate High School.
Credit Michael Hernandez

The American Psychiatric Association published the 2016 book “Gun Violence and Mental Illness,” which states mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than one percent of all yearly gun-related homicides.  The book cited “although some mass shooters are found to have a history of psychiatric illness, no reliable research has suggested that a majority of perpetrators are primarily influenced by serious mental illness as opposed to, for example, psychological turmoil flowing from other sources.”

Parent Joshua Halteman has two children in the district. He said while addressing mental health is important, so is educating kids about guns.

“Whether you’re mentally ill, whether you’ve been bullied, there are ways to deal with that without grabbing a firearm. That is lack of teaching, teaching our children. My children know about weapons, my children know about guns. My daughters like to shoot. We shoot targets. They shoot semi-automatic rifles. The caliber doesn’t matter. But that kid that’s intent on coming in and doing damage, he’s not looking at your sign. He’s looking for the person with the gun that’s going to stop him. That’s the first target,” Halteman said.

Another key part of the debate is preventing gun violence. The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence released its annual gun law scorecard earlier this year, which ranks all 50 states on the strength of their gun laws. New Mexico received an “F” grade and was ranked among the 10 worst states for gun safety.

Las Cruces Public Schools Board Member Ray Jaramillo said he believes funding early childhood education is the way to break the cycle of gun violence.

If we raise good children they become good middle schoolers and they become good teenagers and then eventually they become good parents, and so one of the things I want our legislators to know and the Public Education Department to know is that we need to be fully funded. We need to invest in children and make children our priority and I think that’s why I got applause tonight,” Jaramillo said.

Regarding school security, the district currently has “all hazard approach” safety plans in place which cover lockdowns, evacuations, Run, Hide, Fight, and shelter in place responses. Along with updating those safety programs, the district said it plans to keep assessing school building vulnerabilities, add more armed security guards and increase the number of school resource officers.

But Smith said while the city has made SROs available for the schools, adding more won’t be easy with the city’s budget and shallow pool of officers. That’s why he said he wrote the resolution to limit access to semi-automatic weapons.

When they have access to a weapon that can do more damage, then greater harm is done,” Smith said. “So, I’m not okay with one or two people being killed or one or two people being wounded, but it’s a situation of when that is going to happen and when somebody is going to take that kind of action. If they have access to a weapon that will help them kill more people or wound more people, what are we doing about that part of the situation? That’s kind of the genesis for how we got to this kind of discussion.”

No action was taken on Smith’s resolution. Castillo said he will continue to pressure the city council to look at mental health and school security issues.