Credit: EdSource
Louis Freedberg

When the University of California appointed former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano as its president last fall, it was far from obvious how her experience in Washington would benefit the university.

It would have been impossible to predict that in Napolitano’s first year on the job she would have to respond to a violent attack that left six UC Santa Barbara students dead. 

Drawing on her deep immersion in overseeing homeland security programs for nearly five years, Napolitano may be in a better position than almost anyone  to lead a conversation – and more importantly, propose a broader strategy – to prevent attacks that are taking the lives of too many of our young people

The mission of the Department of Homeland Security, according to its website, is “to secure the nation from the many threats we face.”  Its more than 240,000 employees work in jobs “ranging from aviation and border security to emergency response, from cybersecurity analyst to chemical facility inspector. Our duties are wide-ranging, but our goal is clear – keeping America safe.”

But the federal government’s efforts to keep the homeland “safe” are  clearly inadequate to tackle the melange of forcesthat contributed to the Santa Barbara killings – including the ineffectiveness of California’s already restrictive gun laws, the failure of California’s mental health infrastructure to isolate and adequately treat someone as seriously disturbed as Elliot Rodger, and possibly the need for more effective anti-bullying efforts in schools. Napolitano could leverage her leadership to focus the intellectual firepower of the great universities that comprise the UC system on a complex and multi-layered problem.

When it comes to homeland security, it is not a question of having to choose between defending against international or domestic terrorism and responding to threats to domestic security and safety. Both must be done. But in terms of actual damage, the score card tilts dramatically to the shortcomings in protecting Americans from domestic attacks – especially those involving guns.

As Steve Lopez pointed out in a recent column in the LA Times, titled, “Ignoring the insanity of gun violence,” the same number of people – about 4,400 – die from gun violence every seven weeks than the total number during the first seven years of the Iraq war. In 2010, the number of children and teenagers who died from gun violence was five times the total number of servicemen killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More effective gun controls must be a key part of any solution. But they are only one part of it. After all, Rodger’s roommates died from stab wounds, not gun shots.  A multi-pronged approach – involving the law, psychology, sociology  and politics – will be needed.

For example, there are disturbing – admittedly unverified – stories that Rodger was subjected to bullying at Crespi Carmelite High School, an all boys parochial school in Los Angeles. Would more effective anti-bullying strategies have helped avert this disaster? Is another piece of the solution new legislation, like that proposed by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, that would prevent someone whom friends and family fear will inflict harm from buying guns?

Just because the massacre of 20 elementary schoolchildren in Newtown didn’t result in any significant changes on a national level – and in fact led to the recall of Colorado lawmakers  who had the temerity to stand up “gun rights” advocates – doesn’t mean giving up.

Not one more. That is the challenge laid down by Richard Martinez, the father of 20-year-old Christopher Martinez, one of the slain UC Santa Barbara students. 

“Get to work and do something,” he told the 20,000 people who packed the football stadium at the memorial service for the victims of the attacks that took his son’s life. “It’s almost become a normal thing for us to accept this ..It’s not normal … life doesn’t have to be like this.”

What will be needed are new strategies for shoring up the nation’s failed defenses that result in the killings of college students like Martinez, and too many other young people like him. The University of California, with its deep banks of researchers, scholars and analysts, working in disciplines ranging from psychology to political science, to criminology and jurisprudence, is ideally suited to do so – working where possible in tandem with our other great systems of public and private education in the state.

UC Davis’ Violence Prevention Research Program is just one program that could play a role. Schools of Education could be mobilized to work on anti-bullying measures, and to come up with ways to train teachers to better identify signs of mental illness in their students – and more importantly, what to do about them.

Law school professors could draft gun legislation that can withstand a challenge in the U.S. Supreme Court. Departments of psychology could help parents identify signs of mental illness. Schools of social work could identify where social service agencies fall down in getting more effective prevention services to those who need them. Sociologists and criminologists  could identify the most worthwhile strategies for lowering homicide rates.

It will not be simple. But directing at least some of UC’s brain power in a coordinated fashion to move the nation beyond mere handwringing would be a constructive and appropriate response to the Santa Barbara tragedy. That would be the most fitting memorial to those who died.

But it will mean coming up with a wider definition of homeland security – along with strategies to put it into effect. Just as the nation is determined to prevent another 9/11 attack,  similar efforts must be made to avert another Columbine, Newtown and now, Santa Barbara.

Louis Freedberg, who has a Ph.D. in anthropology from UC Berkeley, is executive director of EdSource.  

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