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After Boston Bombings, Being Vigilant Without Being Paranoid

In the two weeks since the Boston Marathon bombing, suspects have been identified and news outlets have interviewed people who knew them – asking if there was any sign that they might be capable of the attacks.

The same questions were asked after the Newtown Elementary School shooting.

That’s when Austin therapist Kirsten Brunner was inspired to put together a tip sheet to help people identify red flag behavior.

“It hit close to home because I am a mother and because I am a mental health professional," Brunner said. "Because I could just envision this happening in my boys’ schools.”

Brunner says she supports calls for legislation to address mental health and mandate background checks for buying weapons. But she wanted to create a one-page information sheet that every day people can use to recognize and address troubling behavior right now. She hopes people will put up what she calls her SAFE Tool at work or on their fridges at home.

The tool focuses on three main points.

“What you can do to connect with people who are troubled in your family or in your community, what you can do to help them to get assistance and then what you can do to secure weapons in your home so that someone won’t act in a moment of impulsivity or psychosis," Brunner said.

Brunner says it’s not about profiling people or stigmatizing mental illness.

“It’s about community members just opening their eyes and being aware of what’s going on in their own homes, in their own neighborhoods and their schools and their businesses," Brunner said. "It’s so easy to close our eyes or to give up on people who are struggling around us."

But there’s another part to this equation. The Boston Marathon bombers left their explosives in two bags near the finish line. How do we know when to report an unattended bag and when to not worry about it?

Travis County Sheriff’s Deputies investigated a report of a suspicious lunch bag in the days after the Marathon bombing. It turned out to be nothing. But Sheriff’s spokesman Roger Wade said officers closed down an intersection and treated the situation seriously.

“That’s what we want people to do is to call in suspicious packages so that we can check them out," Wade said. "We would rather err on the side of caution that to have something happen."

Senior Police Officer Jermaine Kilgore says Austin Police have seen heightened awareness from the community since the Boston bombings.

“Here in the last week we’ve had a couple of incidents where we’ve had to lock down a school here or there or take precautions on certain packages so, naturally, I think the call load on that type of stuff kind of goes up because everyone is more alert," Kilgore said.

Kilgore says if you’re not sure about whether something is suspicious – it’s best to call police to let them make the determination. At the same time, he says common sense should be a factor. A suspicious object in an area where it could hurt a lot of people should be taken more seriously.

“Of course a plastic bag at a bus stop or something may not be much of a suspicious package as opposed to a duffel bag… anything with wires or anything," Kilgore said.

The bottom line is that there’s no black and white rule for when to act on your instincts and when to ignore your fear. But keeping a level of awareness doesn’t have to feel like paranoia.

“If everyone is vigilant, then everyone is safer," Kilgore said.

Laura first joined the KUT team in April 2012. She now works for the statewide program Texas Standard as a reporter and producer. Laura came to KUT from the world of television news. She has worn many different hats as an anchor, reporter and producer at TV stations in Austin, Amarillo and Toledo, OH. Laura is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, a triathlete and enjoys travel, film and a good beer. She enjoys spending time with her husband and pets.
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