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These are the names and faces of the 17 victims of the Parkland School shooting. USA TODAY

After the Parkland shooting, there was a maniacal emphasis on hashtags and photo-ops. My community never got the help it needed to actually heal.

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More than a year has elapsed since 17 students and staff were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, including my 14-year-old daughter,  Alaina. But even now, our community is still experiencing the aftershocks of the attack.

Over the course of just one week in March, two more  MSD students died, this time by suicide, adding to the horror of this senseless and preventable tragedy. Shortly after the Parkland suicides,  the father of one of the 20 first-graders killed in the 2012 shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, took his own life as well. 

In the days immediately following the Parkland shooting, before the families of the victims had processed the magnitude of their loss, a cadre of vocal students, fueled by the news media frenzy, focused on political action. They marched, peddling a bromidic elixir of political prescriptions. 

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While the sense of political urgency from students was understandable and in some ways admirable, it came at the cost of a focus on the health and healing — for the families of the victims, students, teachers and the community at large.

Mismanaged media frenzy

The lack of focus was recently highlighted by MSD teacher Kimberly Krawczyk, who  bravely spoke out about the failure of the school district to address the trauma experienced by students and teachers. She cited a lack of trauma training for counselors, a lack of privacy for grieving students seeking help, and an almost maniacal emphasis on hashtags, photo-ops and political protests. All of this left many students, teachers and staff to question whether or not they were being #MSDStrong.

The politicization and media-frenzied response to the murders overwhelmed and eclipsed the real, personal needs of the survivors and their loved ones. To be blunt, the cacophony of voices on gun control drowned out and suppressed a needed conversation on the mental health needs at the school and in the community. For that failure, our community is paying a heavy price.

The causes of mass casualty incidents, and therefore the solutions, are far more complex than they first appear. In fact, it took the commission tasked with investigating the MSD tragedy almost one year to detail its findings in a more than 400-page report

Warning signs leading up to these tragedies are often difficult to decipher, but experts like the Secret Service have been able to identify certain patterns. In its  Safe School Initiative (SSI) report, originally published in 2002, the Secret Service found a strong correlation between suicide and the perpetrators of these senseless school massacres. The overwhelming majority of school shooters, 78%, have a history of suicidal thoughts or attempts, and 61% percent of attackers had a documented history of feeling extremely depressed or desperate.

The shooters’ struggles are often mismanaged or even completely unmanaged before an attack. The SSI found that only one-third of attackers had ever received a mental health evaluation, and fewer than one-fifth had been diagnosed with a mental health or behavior disorder. 

As shocking as it may sound, as a group, school shooters are similar in this way to suicide victims. For both groups, undiagnosed and untreated mental suffering appear to be contributing factors to their ultimate decision to kill themselves or others.

If our nation is serious about tackling gun deaths and the plague of school violence, we must be deliberate about solving the suicide epidemic. These battles cannot be separated.

Solutions to the suicide epidemic

The Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center has recommended a proactive approach to school safety called the Threat Assessment Model, which uses a team of mental health, law enforcement and education professionals to help identify troubled young people. This system has been in place  in Los Angeles County since 2009.

In light of the horror these of these tragedies and discouraging statistics, it may seem strange to say there is good news. Nevertheless, there is. My good friend and collaborator, Dr. Kelly Posner Gerstenhaber and her colleagues at Columbia University, developed the  Columbia Protocol, a suicide-prevention tool with six simple questions to help determine whether a person is at risk for suicide. 

The merit of the Columbia Protocol is in its accessibility combined with the direct nature of its approach. Whether you are a doctor, teacher, parent, co-worker, friend, coach, relative or anyone else, you can save a life. And it really works. For example, after the tool was rolled out to the Marine Corps, suicide rates  dropped 22% from 2013 to 2014.

In fact, I have used the Columbia Protocol questions myself to help a young man and family friend, suffering from the lingering effects of that day in February 2018. He was planning ways to take his own life. I am pleased to report he is receiving the help he desperately needs, and I have this valuable resource to thank.

The debate on how to protect our children and educators from senseless tragedies like mass school shootings rages on — and it will continue to do so as long as politics and ideology drive the discussion. But there are solutions available to us that are not politically partisan or require waiting for politicians in Washington, D.C., to act. We can take action in our own communities to save lives today.

If we are willing to look and listen to what research and experience are telling us, then some good may yet come of this. The fact that the killings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and Sandy Hook Elementary School are still claiming victims is an unfathomable heartbreak that only deepens our sorrows. But our loss and our pain can, to paraphrase the author of Genesis,  turn what was meant for evil to good. We only need to trade anger for compassion to do it.

Ryan Petty is a technology entrepreneur and the founder of The WalkUp Foundation, which promotes evidence-based solutions to improve the safety and security of our nation’s schools. Follow him on Twitter: @rpetty

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

 

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