Rep. Jason Harper

Who can forget that heart-stopping day when there was a school shooting in our own backyard?

A troubled boy brought a kill list and a gun to Cleveland High School on Valentine’s Day last year, but thanks to a combination of quick action, school district safety protocols, and law enforcement professionals, the shooter was soon apprehended, and no one was physically injured.

What happened next was unexpected — and unthinkable.

The shooter, because of a loophole in our laws, was recently freed.  He will not be getting the behavioral health treatment he desperately needs, and our families will not be getting any justice, closure, or peace of mind.

How could this happen?

It’s because of a little-known law that states that if minors are unable to be found mentally competent to stand trial, the state must release them.  There is no legal mandate that can require an adolescent to be involuntarily treated to competency, like we can require adults.

Although the perpetrator was arrested and initially charged with three felony counts of attempted murder, all those charges were dropped.  This youth now walks among us, freed from all legal consequences, simply because we do not have the proper treatment centers, and the laws, to address this kind of situation.

But there were clues.  This struggling boy admitted to hearing voices nearly a year before this incident.  But help was not there for him.

We have to ask ourselves:  how many others are in this same tragic boat?  How many other dangerous situations might we prevent, if we act now and make some changes?

The better solution, for a better New Mexico, is two-pronged:  we need to provide more behavioral health resources for prevention and help, in addition to passing new laws to prevent violent individuals from getting a free pass back into our neighborhoods.

For the past six years, I have sponsored legislation to create something called “Mental Health Community Engagement Teams.” These teams would connect people with the behavioral health services they need, before things boil over into a crisis.  Sadly, my legislation was repeatedly ignored, and not signed into law.

But the health, safety, and welfare of New Mexicans deserves to be respected and addressed.

This is why I will be carrying a bill to the next legislative session in January, to push again for Mental Health Community Engagement Teams, as well as new laws to close this appalling legal loophole.

Both the justice system, and the behavioral health system, failed our students at Cleveland High School that terrible day.

This must not happen again.

(New Mexico Rep. Jason Harper is a Republican representing District 57, which encompasses much of Rio Rancho.)