A panel of doctors, school officials and activists said Oct. 14 that gun violence affects Cambridge in ways residents don’t realize.
“Gun violence impacts us all. It doesn’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat, it doesn’t care if you’re from the city or from a suburb, a small town out in the country, it doesn’t care. Gun violence has touched all of our lives, and that’s why we’re here tonight,” said Oakland-Cambridge Presbyterian Church pastor and McFarland teacher Scott Marrese-Wheeler at a forum held at the church.
Marrese-Wheeler organized the panel discussion on gun violence, school safety, suicide prevention and mental health. He said it’s a conversation the Cambridge community needs to have.
“We talk about it in Madison, we talk about it maybe in Milwaukee, but what about Cambridge, our small town?” Marrese-Wheeler. “It does touch us.”
The event had a panel of experts, including three doctors, Cambridge school administrators, a suicide prevention trainer, and two local advocates from March for our Lives, a grassroots organization working to prevent gun violence. The group formed after the Feb. 14, 2018 shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, mobilizing young people nationally.
Cambridge Superintendent Bernie Nikolay said the fear of gun violence in Cambridge schools is as real as anywhere else.
“Our eyes are wide open that it could happen in little old Cambridge,” Nikolay said.
“We have kids who worry about gun violence, we have kids who have been witness already to gun violence,” said Kristin Gowan, the district’s social worker. Because all current Cambridge students were born after the Columbine school shooting, Gowan said, “They don’t know a world without that.”
The Cambridge School District has spent at least $1.3 million in the last ten years on security at the elementary, middle and high schools, Nikolay said. Some of that spending came from state grants.
“It pains me to spend that money on things other than educating, making student achievement go up,” Nikolay said. However, “our parents insist that we spend it and our school board feels the same.”
Recent security measures the district has added include shatter-resistant glass, exterior cameras, classroom door locks, secure school entrances and staff training on safety.
While mass shootings are a major concern for schools and communities, panelists said they aren’t the only type of gun violence.
Marrese-Wheeler said between 30,000 and 40,000 people die from gun violence in the United States each year. A majority of those deaths, said former Madison Police officer Jean Papalia, are suicides.
In 2018, 74 people died from suicide in Dane County, and 886 people died in Wisconsin, Papalia said. About 72 percent of all gun deaths in Wisconsin are suicides.
“They’re not homicides, they’re not mass shootings or school shootings or accidental firearms,” Papalia said, who now works as a suicide prevention trainer for Safe Communities of Madison-Dane County, a health non-profit.
Reducing suicides, Papalia said, could reduce gun violence overall.
“Evidence is clear that most people with mental disorders do not engage in violence against others and that most violent behavior is due to factors other than mental illness,” Papalia said.
Cambridge School Board member and child psychiatrist Tom Wright agreed. He said reducing access to weapons during crisis is one of the ways to prevent suicide.
“You do what you can to take away the means,” he said.
“With kids, it’s a very impulsive thought. It comes and goes quickly,” Wright said. “If we could prevent a violent act from happening during those few second or few minutes, then you’ve prevented a suicide. The trouble with guns...is that they’re mostly successful.”
One audience member asked Nikolay if the amount of funding the district spends on school security was proportional to suicide prevention efforts.
“A vast majority of our staff is either being reprioritized to that part of what we do, or if we have new money, it’s very likely going to go into our students’ health and wellness,” Nikolay responded.
Gowan added that Cambridge does have a school-based therapist, suicide prevention training for staff, mental health curriculum for students and a mentoring program already in place.
The forum had some participation from community members, sharing opinions about arming teachers, responsible militias and availability.
The discussion also drew elected officials, with a spokesperson for U.S. Congressman Mark Pocan and fifth-district congressional candidate Tom Palzewicz. Both Palzewicz and Pocan are Democrats.
So what can communities do to address gun violence? Panelists discussed possible measures like background checks, assault weapon regulation, violence protection orders, mental health programming and gun show regulations. But the biggest suggestion was to vote, and let representatives know where you stand.
“Keep in touch with your reps, call our office,” said Pocan’s spokesperson Eric Schlueter, “If we’re not doing something you think we should, we want to know.”