Sisters woman seeks to prevent mass shootings
Last updated 3/22/2022 at Noon
We’ve gotten all too used to the news: At a school in Somewhere, USA, a teenager brings a gun to class and opens fire. In the following days, the story comes out about a troubled youth who felt alienated and/or bullied, who was reading about mass shootings online and had found a way to acquire a weapon. If only people had picked up the signs…
For Lezlie Neusteter of Sisters, a country in which mass shootings at schools are commonplace isn’t acceptable — and she has set out to build a culture and systems that can prevent them.
Neusteter is a forensic social worker by trade — her work is in homeless prevention and crisis intervention. But she comes at the problem of mass shootings first and foremost as a mom. She has a daughter in first grade and a son in second grade in Sisters schools.
“Honestly, I moved to Sisters for that sense of safety and security,” she told The Nugget. “I don’t want to raise my kids in a country where mass shootings are normalized. I think we’ve become desensitized to them. We just wait for the next mass shooting.”
Neusteter knows full well, however, that no community is immune from the tragedy and horror of mass shootings. They happen in big cities and small towns. They happen everywhere. So, Neusteter got to work.
She delved deeply into research on the phenomenon of mass shootings, and is in the midst of launching the nonprofit Prevent Mass Shootings Now (www.preventmassshootingsnow.org), which will help communities build the tools and protocols to prevent mass shootings.
While it’s important to prevent someone in crisis from having easy access to a weapon, Neusteter’s work is not about gun control. Nor is it about enhanced security measures. Prevent Mass Shootings Now seeks to move far upstream from an incident, to intervene long before violent fantasies and plans become a horrible reality.
“It struck me as a social worker… that, ultimately, mass shooters are people in crisis… that we can actually reach them before they reach for a gun,” she said.
While Neusteter’s background and training give her significant insight, her work is founded on a vast body of research that has been accumulated over decades from work done by the FBI and the Secret Service, and the organization Sandy Hook Promise, founded in the wake of a 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where 26 people were killed. Twenty of the victims were children between six and seven years old; six were adult school staff.
“Report after report pointed to [the fact] that mass shootings are preventable if you know the warning signs,” Neusteter said. (See sidebar.)
Protocols exist for threat assessment, and for peer awareness and “say something” programs that encourage students to alert adults if they see troubling behavior in or out of school and online. Neusteter notes that warning signs of potential violence usually track with warning signs of suicide.
“They’re suicidal before they’re homicidal,” she said.
Awareness and alertness among school staff and peers — and a culture that promotes taking warning signs seriously and acting on them — is essential to effective prevention.
Neusteter noted that Sisters is already on track with preventive measures, from threat assessment to anti-bullying policies and protocols.
“We’re extremely fortunate that the Sisters School District has prioritized threat assessment, that it has prioritized social-emotional learning,” Neusteter said.
Intervention can’t rely on punitive measures, Neusteter believes. Those in or headed into crisis need psychological help to get at the underlying factors that have put them there.
“Basically, we can’t punish our way out of this epidemic,” she said. “It’s not going to work. If you expel a student or fire a worker, it doesn’t remove the threat; it can actually exacerbate it. It can throw them into crisis and trigger the attack. You can lock somebody up for threatening behavior, but they’re sure to get out in a pretty short period of time, more angry and determined to do harm than ever. We need to look at where their seething anger is coming from. It’s a paradigm shift. It is. But it’s necessary.”
Neusteter seeks to provide community education through seminars, to raise awareness of the underlying causes of violence and to encourage people to know the signs and to “say something.” She will host a webinar on the subject on April 20.
She also wants to promote the creation of regional “crisis corps” centers that include fully funded and resourced threat assessment teams and people qualified to intervene in effective ways. Because individual communities have uneven resources and capacity, she says, “ultimately, I think, this is something that the federal government needs to provide.”
Neusteter is currently at work establishing Prevent Mass Shootings Now as a nonprofit. She is seeking volunteers to help with fundraising and to build capacity. For more information on how to get involved, visit www.preventmassshootingsnow.org or email Neusteter at [email protected]