States take harder look at mental health, background checks following massacres


Two states are closing loopholes and putting more money into mental health programs following multiple massacres in recent weeks. Ohio Governor John Kasich has allocated $5 million for a state backed mental health intervention program for children. In Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick signed a new law on Friday that closes a loophole that allowed educators to be hired without fully checking for criminal records.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, and shootings in California and Colorado, many governors and mayors have announced plans to support better mental health programs and close loopholes. Last week, two states passed reforms in this vein. The Ohio intervention program will help the parents of children with mental health challenges in the event that the parent or child feels like they may be unable to control their behavior. The announcement followed a significant increase in calls to state mental health hotlines in Ohio following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.

According to an article in the Columbus Dispatch the program was in the pipeline before the shootings, but after state officials saw the uptick in calls they moved quickly to get funding in place. Since the December 14 shooting, the number of families in crisis reported to the program in Ohio has topped 1,000.

“We can’t do everything, and this isn’t going to solve everything, but it’s at least, I think, a good start in terms of dealing with the problem we’re seeing all over the country and we know exists in our state. This is something that’s bothered me, and I’ve talked about it a long time,” the Governor said at a news conference.

On Friday, Governor Deval Patrick signed a new law that will close a loophole which previously allowed educators to be hired without a complete criminal background check. The new law authorizes the Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) and school districts to conduct fingerprint-supported national criminal history background checks on all teachers, school employees and early education providers in Massachusetts.

Prior to this law, school districts and early education providers were allowed only to conduct name-based Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) checks covering criminal history record information for crimes committed in Massachusetts. These CORI checks did not include any criminal history record information for crimes committed outside the Commonwealth.

The bill not only requires school districts to obtain fingerprint-supported state and national criminal history record information for school employees, bus drivers, and subcontractors commissioned by the district to perform work on school grounds, but also gives investigators at EEC and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESE) access to use the results of state and federal criminal record checks in connection with licensure issues and investigations of alleged misconduct by educators.

All newly hired teachers, school employees, bus drivers, subcontractors and early education and care and out-of-school time providers must undergo state and national background checks prior to the start of the 2013-2014 school year. All current employees must undergo national background checks over the next three years, prior to the start of the 2016-2017 school year.

“The safety and well-being of children and youth is of top priority and the information from these checks will help to ensure that our programs provide positive environments and support caring and engaging interactions between adults and children that support their healthy growth and development,” said Department of Early Education and Care Commissioner Sherri Killins.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg will also be headlining a summit on guns held today at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The Mayor has been an outspoken advocate on gun control measures and ramped up his support for such laws in the wake of the Newtown massacre. Gun control measures are moving forward in 10 states despite opposition from the gun lobby. In Newtown itself, a group of citizens launched Newtown Promise, an anti-violence initiative aimed at preventing massacres.