VP Kamala Harris visits Charlotte to talk about guns, trauma and mental health

Vice President Kamala Harris visited Charlotte’s Eastway Middle School on Thursday to announce new funding for school mental health services and to talk about the trauma of gun violence.

Harris started her visit by speaking privately with students who have been affected by shootings.

“One in five Americans has a family member that was killed because of gun violence,” she said. “Those numbers on their face are extraordinarily tragic and shocking. And when we take the time to consider what those numbers mean, let’s understand how many people in our country, including the children, are experiencing profound trauma.”

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona accompanied her and talked about how that trauma spills into schools, even when the violence happens in the community.

“Make no mistake,” he said, “you can’t separate the need to accelerate our students’ academic successes (from) the need to have safe and welcoming learning environments, free from fear and free from violence.”

Harris talked about the need for “reasonable gun safety laws,” such as background checks for gun buyers. But she focused mostly on the need for schools to create safe spaces for young people, which requires support staff who can deal with trauma and other mental health needs.

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, passed in 2022, is providing $285 million nationwide to provide more than 14,000 additional mental health counselors, she said. North Carolina will get $12 million, she said, which will cover 332 more counselors.

Eastway school social worker Corteasia Riddick said a shortage of counselors, social workers and psychologists makes it difficult to deal with all the trauma students bring to school.

“We need more mental health professionals to provide safe and healthy outlets for students to discuss their thoughts, feelings and emotions,” she said. “This will give our youth an opportunity to acquire conflict resolution and coping skills, which are severely lacking with many of our children and teens.”

Charlotte has experienced a spate of gun violence involving teens, including this week’s shooting death of a Myers Park High student and a New Year’s Eve shooting that injured five people. A 19-year-old has been charged with that shooting.

West Charlotte High School student Malachi Thompson talked about losing a 16-year-old cousin to a fatal shooting two days after Christmas, and about struggling with suidical thoughts as an 8-year-old. He said he’s been supported by staff at his schools, and he wants to help others now.

“Last week, just talking with my family, I said, ‘We have more work,’ ” he said. “And here I get this opportunity to speak, not only with a lot of our elected officials on this panel, but also our vice president.”

News media were cleared from the room before Harris, Cardona, Riddick and Thompson took part in a panel discussion that included educators, gun safety activists and local officials such as Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Crystal Hill and school board Chair Stephanie Sneed.

Heavily armed personnel in military gear lined the halls at Eastway Middle School as journalists were escorted out, a reminder that violence is a concern for officials as well as students.
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