Congresswoman Susan W. Brooks

Representing the 5th District of Indiana
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HPI Interview: Brooks weighs safe schools - She experienced Parkland shooting with Rep. Deutch and then it happened in her district

Jun 8, 2018
In The News

NOBLESVILLE – The May 25 shooting at West Middle School brought a déjà vu feeling to U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks. The ranking Democrat on the House Ethics Committee she chairs is U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, who represents Parkland, Fla. 

Two weeks prior, Brooks and Deutch had introduced HR5715, the Jake Laird Act, named after the Indianapolis police officer who was shot and killed in 2004 in the line of duty by a man who struggled with mental illness. They introduced it a little less than three months after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas HS atrocity. 

“We’ve worked together for six years,” Brooks said of Deutch in a Howey Politics Indiana Interview Tuesday morning. “So, I kind of went through Parkland with him. We were scheduled to have a meeting that week and so I have talked with him extensively since Parkland.”  Sandwiched between Parkland on Feb. 14 and West on May 25 was the Santa Fe HS massacre that claimed the lives of 10 Texans. In the wake of that, Brooks tweeted, “The horrific loss of 9 students & 1 teacher today in Texas is heartbreaking. I am working w/my colleagues in Congress to do more, b/c more must be done to prevent the loss of innocent lives.”

HPI reached out to Brooks because the West shooting occurred in her 5th CD. She describes at length the many steps she had taken in the district to head off such an incident. She describes Noblesville schools and the community as one which had put an array of protocols in place to prevent a massacre. They seemed to work since only two were injured, compared to 17 deaths at Parkland and 10 in the Houston suburb. 

Brooks echoed comments from Gov. Eric Holcomb and Indiana State Police Supt. Doug Carter that the protocols in Noblesville, part of a long-time, state school-safety strategy in place at the Indiana Department of Education, kept the injuries to student Ella Whistler (facing a lengthy and arduous recovery after suffering seven gunshot wounds to the face, chest and hand) and teacher Jason Seaman. 

“Jason Seaman threw a basketball at the young man, which is what the protocol says,” Brooks explained. “Throw something at a shooter. Kids are actually trained to pick up something to throw at a shooter so someone can try to tackle them. That’s what the teacher did; they trained with that.”  She acknowledges something HPI has written, that the Noblesville shooter chose a classroom with a 6-foot-6 former Southern Illinois University defense lineman. Had it been in a classroom with a petite 5-foot-2 literature teacher, the outcome could have been far more cataclysmic.

Despite a number of conferences she had convened prior to Parkland and West Middle School, talking with Brooks finds a public servant with a heavy heart, in which the near tragedy in her district has taken a toll. Brooks is very deliberate in walking through what had happened in Noblesville prior to the shooting, and the response of terrified students and parents who are now demanding “hardened” schools.

The proposed national version of the Jake Laird Act is what Brooks talks about most. It enables local law enforcement, with probable cause, to seize and retain firearms from individuals who are determined to be an imminent danger to themselves or others. It has been used in Indianapolis more than 700 times since 2005. At least one study shows that it has reduced the number of suicides in Indiana. No one knows if it headed off what the New York Times describes as the “allure” of the Columbine Syndrome, the American version of the Islamic suicide bomber. A cult of martyrdom has built up around Columbine killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, who murdered 13 classmates and teachers while wounding 24.

She has only 13 co-sponsors, but has talked to West and Parkland students and parents, urging them to take an activist role. That’s a fascinating development in deep red Hamilton County, one of the most Republican in the nation.

In a May 9 letter, 24 Parkland parents wrote, “We are the families of the victims killed in the tragedy in Parkland on February 14, 2018. We write to show our support for the Jake Laird Act of 2018 and we strongly urge your colleagues in the United States of America House of Representatives to join with you to quickly pass this legislation. We request an expeditious hearing by the House Judiciary Committee, approval by the Committee and then passage of this bill by the entire House of Representatives. Frankly, we know much more needs to be done to prevent mass murder from ever again occurring in our schools. The safety of students, teachers and staff in our schools cannot wait.”

Here is our HPI Interview with Rep. Brooks: 

HPI: After we watched 30 Hoosiers arrested for making school threats in the weeks following the Parkland, Fla., massacre, and then the West Middle School shooting occurs in your district, what are your thoughts about these developments?

Brooks: Obviously, it was horrifying that it would happen in any school district, anywhere in the state, but I have been talking with students and faculty and administrators since the incident and will continue to do so. Listening not only to what they went through, how they felt about it, but also what they want to see changed. What’s sad for me is it’s an issue I’ve been focused on for a very long time. I co-founded a school safety caucus in Washington with Congressman Rick Larsen a couple of years ago. I introduced the Jake Laird Act with one of my very good friends, Ted Deutch, who represents Parkland. I introduced that on May 9 before this happened. Quite frankly, it got little to no attention at home. I was disappointed by that.

HPI: What does the Jake Laird Act do?

Brooks: It incentivizes states through a grant program to adopt a Jake Laird Law or their version. Florida adopted a version of the Jake Laird Law after Parkland and I believe it is one more tool to give law enforcement to remove guns from the hands of someone who would be a danger to self or others. It’s been very successful in Indiana. That was done before the incident in Noblesville. What is so frightening to parents and teachers is the fact that these are very difficult incidents. That’s what concerns so many people right now.

HPI: Gov. Holcomb flagged for me that New York Times story on the allure of the Columbine Syndrome, that there’s now a cult celebrating the two Colorado shooters and inducing American kids into a martyrdom. I saw it as a breakthrough that might allow schools to gauge the tiny percentage of students who might fit that profile.

Brooks: I do welcome the need to study the school shooters. We need to go more in depth to that. Social media didn’t even exist when Columbine occurred. Now the reliance particularly by young people as a main mode of communication and where they get their information – and the fact that young people still follow the Columbine shooters – is something we really do need to study. I had no information that indicates the young shooter in Noblesville to know that was the situation. It’s too early to know that. Law enforcement hasn’t shared that yet. When I was deputy mayor in the 1990s, we focused on homicides in Indianapolis. We did study it. When you study when the homicides are occurring and where they are occurring, what are the patterns, that could help school authorities and administrators to better understand what are the signs to look for. Just like gun crimes when it comes to homicides, it’s not just law enforcement’s responsibility, it’s everyone’s responsibility to understand what shooter motives are and what is causing it. We’re going to have to have a better understanding not just among school administrators and teachers, but parents and everyone of what might be motivating someone to want to inflict this kind of harm with the desire to shoot and kill people

HPI: And there’s the mental health component to all of this.

Brooks: We have not focused enough on the mental health challenges of our young people. I’ve tried to elevate the administration at Hamilton Southeastern has placed on mental health challenges. Assistant Supt. (Michael) Beresford just got hired by Carmel and the factors were No. 1, he’s a trained school-safety specialist. We have safety specialists in all of our public school districts in the state. It’s a requirement. No. 2, he’s overseen the mental health partnership with Community (Hospital) North, from funding of the Lilly Endowment to the focus on mental health in school counseling. The kids started a “Stigma Free Club” with about 100 members that are trained to hear, mentor with mental health concerns of students. People can identify them. They were not aware of the Stigma Free Club over at HSE. I connected them with that club. We’ve got to do a lot more. The young people of Noblesville brought it up yesterday. They know this is not only an issue of mental health, it’s an issue of young people’s access to weapons. How did this young man get his hands on these handguns? They are very interested in elevating the importance of a lot more security when it comes to young people’s access to guns. Young people cannot go in to register and buy handguns. I do think we need to focus on how young people get access to guns, as well as why are so many of these shooters deciding to shoot people in the first place.

HPI: Parents are now calling for the “hardening” of schools.

Brooks: It was very interesting to me that young people don’t want their schools to be fortresses. The young people I was with yesterday didn’t want metal detectors. This is a complex problem.

HPI: Indiana Supt. Jennifer McCormick described schools as “dangerous places to be” last week. It was a jaw-dropping statement. We have a lot of parents calling for hardened schools. President Trump wants to arm teachers. Is that a good idea?

Brooks: Most of the teachers and administrators I’ve talked to in the 5th District are not in favor of that. The districts I represent are very, very different, but almost everybody wants school resources officers in their schools, yet many communities cannot afford to hire more officers. That is a big discussion we need to have at the state legislature. We just passed in this latest omnibus (with) over $2 billion for school security measures. Part of what I’m trying to do is get those funds pushed to the state as fast as possible. They’re coming through the Justice Department and the Department of Education. They are coming through Health and Human Services. We have to make sure our state goes after those funds. It will be competitive. There are some rural schools where they might say, “We won’t be able to have a school resource officer,” but maybe the principal will be armed or someone will have a weapon. I think those come down more to individual school districts. Those districts can be very, very different. That comes down to a more local decision.

HPI: We had a school referendum that passed in Brown County and as a result, my mortgage went up $70 a month due to the tax escrow portion. That’s a big hike. Hardening schools and hiring more resource officers is going to really cost taxpayers and property owners. The state came up with $5 million and that’s just a drop in the bucket. So “who pays?” is going to be a big and potentially volatile issue across the state.

Brooks: That’s the exact type of debate communities are going to have to have. Are people willing to pay to harden their schools? I do think more needs to be done. Most newer schools are being designed to ensure better blocking mechanisms, fewer entry points, even classrooms have the ability to be locked. Not all schools have those capabilities. What are the security devices we give to teachers in classrooms to create emergency alert systems? There are technological solutions and that’s part of what the Security Caucus has been focused on, short of having a lot of police officers in schools. But it will cost schools. I’m also interested in having more school resource officers.

HPI: What else is the House School Security Conference weighing?

Brooks: We’re actually having another meeting at the end of the month where we’re going to be doing the briefing to compare state security guidelines across the country and what kind of standards have been put in place. The Police Foundation is giving the presentation. I do think we need to do a better job of sharing best practices. I will tell you that Indiana is one of the few that has the School Safety Academy. Do you know much about that Academy?

HPI: No. Tell us more.

Brooks: It’s been in place for more than a decade and Dave Woodward runs it out of the Indiana Department of Education. More than 2,000 educators have been certified. They have gone through specialized training. I would encourage you to reach out to Dr. McCormick and Dave Woodward to learn about our School Safety Academy. Every school district is required to have a trained school safety specialist and I would say that most of our public schools have someone within the school, not only just one in the district. These schools implement protocols and drills. They receive regular newsletters. When Noblesville happened, because of the concerns of copycats, which does happen, an email went to all school safety specialists around the state telling them that it happened and a reminder of the protocols. I think that’s a terrific model. Most parents don’t know it exists. When they know about it, they are hugely relieved to know our state has been doing this for some time. Noblesville has a strong school safety specialist. I actually convened a meeting in late April that Noblesville hosted. It’s another reason this is breaking my heart. Noblesville has been very focused on this issue. They have parents focused on it, their school board has been focused on it and they hosted a meeting for 5th District school boards and their school safety specialists and their superintendents attended the meeting. They shared their concerns and talked about what was needed. I had similar meetings with law enforcement. I met with the Noblesville parents group about three weeks before this happened. That’s what is really very tough for me to know that so many people in Noblesville have been very focused on trying to find ways to make their schools safer, yet it happened. That’s what makes it sad, horrible. We all just have to go back to the drawing board to find ways to prevent it and make sure the protocols are in place.

HPI: Gov. Holcomb and Supt. Doug Carter cited those protocols that limited the carnage to the student and teacher.

Brooks: Jason Seaman threw a basketball at the young man, which is what the protocol says. Throw something at a shooter. Kids are actually trained to pick up something to throw at a shooter, so someone can try to tackle them. That’s what the teacher did; they trained with that. Those are good things. These Noblesville High School students told me they know the protocol. They were doing it. It doesn’t make it any less terrifying when they have to execute it. Let’s not diminish how terrified these students are. We all have to know that. They knew what to do, and I don’t think schools across the country know that.

HPI: Talk about the Jake Laird Act and the impact it has had in Indiana. If that gets implemented nationally, will it save lives or prevent shootings in the first place?

Brooks: In Indianapolis alone – and here is one of the strengths of the Jake Laird Law, it has been studied by a couple of groups. There has actually been an impact on suicides. Another study done in Indianapolis alone has been used more than 720 times since 2005. That’s a lot of times for one city to use it. I’ve talked to Supt. Doug Carter about this, but the state has not collected stats as to how it’s been used around the state. I know it’s been used in Boone County, in Hamilton County and extensively in Marion County. It’s been used because law enforcement has been trained on it. It gives them another tool to remove weapons from the hands, through probable cause, of someone who is a danger to themselves or others, whether it’s domestic violence or a neighborhood feud, whether it is someone concerned that a young person might commit a shooting someplace. It has been used effectively. There is due process. If there’s not time to get a warrant, it removes the weapon(s) and it goes to court within 14 days. The state has the burden of proof. That’s why it’s been very effective. It had not been challenged by gun rights advocates. Unfortunately the NRA, which was neutral initially, opposed my bill. I have work to do. I’ve got only 13 people to sign on to it. I’ve spoken to my Republican conference three days before the Noblesville shooting, because Santa Fe had happened, and I said to my colleagues, “We have got to do something. We have got to ask more questions about it.”

HPI: How did your conference colleagues respond?

Brooks: Keep in mind when we introduce a bill, we blast out of a lot of information to our colleagues. I’ve got to do more education. I asked the Noblesville young people to help me. Help get young people across the country to help educate. Help me get more people to sign on to this bill. I have talked to the chair of the Judiciary Committee, Bob Goodlatte, who is actually very interested in the bill. We’ve talked to his committee staff because I’d love to get a hearing on the bill. It’s going to take more work to get it passed this year.

HPI: Since February, we’ve seen the Parkland students get very active on policy and politics.

Brooks: I’ve met with the Parkland students.

HPI: They really had an impact in Florida with Gov. Rick Scott, who I believe had an A rating from the NRA, and the conservative and Republican Florida legislature. Is that a model Republicans in Congress or even the Indiana General Assembly ought to be looking at?

Brooks: I believe so. I encourage these young people to be advocates. I do believe law enforcement found it to be a very good tool in Indiana and I do believe young people all across the country could influence their members in Congress, Republicans and Democrats. I encouraged the Noblesville young people to help with that. I know the Parkland students have reached out to them. Parkland parents have reached out. The member I’ve dropped the bill with is Ted Deutch. He represents Parkland. I chair the House Ethics Committee and he’s the ranking Democrat. We’ve worked together for six years. So, I kind of went through Parkland with him. We were scheduled to have a meeting that week and so I have talked with him extensively since Parkland. He’s my colleague on that bill. He connected me with the Parkland parents before we dropped that bill and the Parkland parents wrote a letter with a number of them signing the bill. But I’ve had to educate Hoosier parents and work with people here that we have dropped this bill. It’s one important step forward. It’s just one, but it’s an important step forward.

HPI: In meeting with West Middle School students, teachers, parents, have any had any profound advice or observations?

Brooks: Everyone I’ve talked to is extremely concerned about how a seventh grader got access to the weapon and what do we do to have more of an educational effort with adults as to how to secure their weapons. I have not had a huge outcry of removing all weapons. It’s been a very balanced, good discussion about protection of 2nd Amendment rights while making sure that guns don’t get in the wrong hands.

HPI: When I met with kids from Fort Wayne, Carroll, Leo and Huntington last month, one of the consensus points was if a kid gets a gun from home and takes it to school and shoots the place up, the parents or guardians should bear some of the legal consequences.\

Brooks: I suppose it is something we should be looking at, but I also know – and I shared this with the kids from Noblesville – if someone really wants to get a gun, they can get it illegally. They don’t just get it from a parent. But, I do believe parents have a responsibility to secure the weapons at home. They absolutely do. Everybody agrees with that. The question does become, though, if you end up charging a parent when a child is a shooter … what if that parent had done all the right things and somehow you have a person who is so focused on getting to a weapon, they are going to find a weapon, whether it’s at grandma and grandpa’s house, or at another relative, or illegally? So, then I move into my prosecutor mode. They would have to demonstrate and prove that parent should be held liable. It’s tough, but it’s an important discussion.