Our opinion: A step toward a safer Vermont

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All along, from the day he said he'd consider gun safety legislation to the day he signed three gun safety bills in front of the Statehouse, Gov. Phil Scott emphasized that common-sense firearms regulations are only one part of the puzzle.

We heard as much from state and community experts in education, mental health and law enforcement at our forums on school safety and gun violence in Brattleboro and Bennington. Much like the opioid epidemic can't be stopped solely through law enforcement, prevention or treatment, violence is a multi-faceted problem that defies a simple, single solution.

So we're pleased to see Scott follow through on establishing a Community Violence Prevention Task Force. The proof of its value will be in whether the commission proves effective, and whether its recommendations find their way into laws and policies that help improve public safety. But it's a start.

Vermont is a small state, and it's a safe state. But being safe and staying safe are two different things. We're not immune to threatened and actual violence, as we have learned, and whether the culprits are childhood traumatic experiences, physical and social isolation, addiction or other factors, the cost is high.

Consider the testimony of Fair Haven High School students before the state Senate, asking that they change the state "attempt" law that may allow Jack Sawyer, a former classmate who had allegedly plotted to commit a mass shooting at their school, to be freed on bail or have some or all of the charges against him thrown out.

VTDigger.org reported that Fair Haven senior Elyza Bird told a Senate committee that fear and anxiety have drained the joy out of the school year for the entire school community.

"I am no longer excited for prom," Bird said, according to the report. "Instead, I'll be watching the exits and hope I make it home."

That's a high price indeed.

Just like the opioid epidemic cannot be solved by any one facet of the problem — education, treatment, or law enforcement to name a few — gun violence also defies a single solution. "While gun safety and school security can be part of the conversation, we must also focus on the root causes of violence," Scott said in announcing the commission.

The commission will study the underlying causes of violent behavior in communities, using Vermont-based data where available. It will identify best practices for prevention, including identifying warning signs, improving the reporting and prevention of bullying, and closing "operational gaps" between local and state agencies.

It's charge also includes evaluating protections for individuals (students and adults) who report safety threats, and, by legislative request, studying whether there's a connection between "excessive video game playing and the propensity to engage in gun violence."

In a related development, the Scott administration also released the results of the school safety assessment the Governor ordered following the discovery of a plot to commit a school shooting at Fair Haven High School.

The good news is that 92 percent of schools educate faculty, staff, and students on emergency response protocols prior to the beginning of the school year. But 44 percent have not communicated with parents or guardians about specifically what they should and should not do during an emergency at school.

There's work to do in upgrading schools' training, planning and safety upgrades. But money has been allocated for this task by the legislature, and improvements should follow quickly on a need-based basis.

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