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Gov. Evers, Republicans aim to find common ground on school safety, mental health

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Madison, Wis. (CBS 58) – Democratic Governor Tony Evers and the republican-controlled Legislature are hoping to find areas of common ground to address the issue of school safety in the wake of multiple incidents of violence at Wisconsin schools.

Communities around the state are still reeling following shootings at Waukesha South and Oshkosh West high schools.

The governor and republican leadership have been at odds this year when it comes to addressing gun violence, especially in schools. However, there may be an area both sides find agreement on.

“I know there are republicans in the Legislature that care about this issue of mental health,” Evers told CBS 58. “Hopefully we can do something around that in the near future – that will help solve some of the issues around behavioral health and mental health that we have in the state of Wisconsin. So that’s our hope and I believe we’ll have some success going forward.”

While mental illness does not indicate a person is prone to violent behavior, it can help officials address young people who are vulnerable to trauma or other factors.

One effort to address the issue is a bill being put forth by Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R – Kaukauna) that would expand the already-existing Child Psychiatry Consultation Program. AB 644 would establish a pilot program in Outagamie County where school district officials can contact child psychiatrists who can offer support and consultations.

“What this effort would do is try to come up with an umbrella program where a single individual could provide services to staff inside the schools to help them better recognize signs of mental illness and deal with those mental illnesses when they do occur,” Steineke said.

The primary issue, Steineke says, is a scarcity in the number of practicing child psychiatrists. The Kaukauna republican says 60 out of the state’s 72 counties do not have a practicing child psychiatrist in them.

“What they’re seeing is sometimes weeks or months wait for kids to see a child psychiatrist if they’re even able to get in at all,” Steineke said. “So I think what this will do is help with those emerging issues inside the schools.”

Steineke said he is optimistic that the bill is something that can gain bipartisan support in the Legislature and eventually Gov. Evers’ signature.

Evers understands the need to address the issue, but notes more work can be done.

“I don’t believe every gun incident is going to be solved by addressing mental health,” Evers said. “However, I will say no matter what school district you talk to […], they’re concerned about kids’ mental health. And whether that mental health shows up in behaviors that are destructive like we’ve seen this past week or any other way, we really need to double down on that.”

Following mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, Gov. Evers and democrats pushed two proposals on gun safety: one to establish extreme risk protection orders – also known as red flag laws – and one that would place universal background checks on most firearm sales in the state.

Evers called for a special session, but the proposals faced opposition from republicans. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald briefly held the special sessions, but did not take up the bills for debate or a vote.

While Evers still firmly believes those proposals are important – he wants to move forward on mental health initiatives that can win support from republicans.

When asked whether he is optimistic about achieving something on the issue of mental health, Evers answered, “yes, absolutely.”

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