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News brief: Russia-Ukraine crisis, Sandy Hook settlement, kids' mental health

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russia claims that it has pulled some of its troops from the border with Ukraine, but NATO wants proof. Here's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg talking to reporters this morning.

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JENS STOLTENBERG: So far, we have not seen any de-escalation on the ground from the Russian side. Over the last weeks and days, we have seen the opposite - a continued military buildup.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

NATO defense ministers are meeting today and tomorrow to discuss the next steps. Yesterday, President Biden warned an invasion is still possible. He urged continued diplomacy while saying again that he will not be sending U.S. service members to fight in Ukraine.

MARTIN: With us to discuss the latest developments in Ukraine, NPR's Frank Langfitt. Frank, thanks for being here.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So U.S. intelligence had warned that Russia could launch an invasion today. That has not happened. What has been the reaction on the streets of Kyiv, where you've been?

LANGFITT: Yeah. Rachel, it was interesting. I thought people would be much more relieved, but I would say there was sort of a surreal calm on the streets. Most people here have not believed Russia will launch a mass invasion. They simply think it's too costly to Vladimir Putin. It would also be kind of hard to get your head around. You've been to this city. It's 3 million people. So the idea of going into Kyiv is sort of - would be extraordinary, militarily. And today, I think, for a lot of people that I talked to, they sort of felt like this was just another day in a long-running battle with Russia going back to the time in 2014 when Russia seized Crimea. They've been under a lot of pressure, and they kind of take it a day at a time.

MARTIN: Right. So does that mean that people made any kind of actual preparations for a potential invasion or not really?

LANGFITT: I don't think they did. I mean, I think I made more preparations myself...

MARTIN: Right.

LANGFITT: ...Than most people in this city. You know, we did not see panic, no bank runs. There were no long lines of cars trying to get out of the city. I talked to one dishwasher who works at a restaurant here. She planned, if there was an attack, to go back to the family farm, quite a ways from here, about three-hour drive and hide in the basement of an old church. But, you know, she didn't - she doesn't make that much money, so she didn't really have that much money to take out of the bank to fund her own evacuation. And I think, to be honest, Rachel - and I'm sure you found this when you were here reporting - people are exhausted. They feel they've been under threat from Russia for a long, long time. And they're only really going to react to big things that they see with their own eyes.

MARTIN: Right. And just because there are these reports that Russia has moved troops, they say it's just the end of exercises, the U.S. and NATO are still saying even if it doesn't happen today, it could still happen. I mean, is that registering? Or is there just a desire to just live one's life a day at a time and block out the noise?

LANGFITT: Yeah, and I also think that Ukrainians don't feel like they have any control over this anyway. There are still 150,000 Russian troops. Nobody around here thinks this standoff is over at all. And I think if most troops were to head back to the barracks, then I think people here would begin to exhale.

MARTIN: Right.

LANGFITT: But they've been through a lot.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, there is this big meeting at NATO. Anything concrete expected to come out of that today?

LANGFITT: Yeah, there is. I mean, this meeting was long scheduled. It wasn't planned because of what's happening right now. I think they're going to be discussing deploying more troops to Eastern European countries. France has offered to lead a battalion in Romania. What's interesting is this, of course, is exactly the opposite of what Russia wants. It wants NATO to retreat and move way far away. We have talked about this as a moment of potential NATO unity and opportunity, but it is complicated. There are divisions in NATO in some respects. The most vocal members have been the United States and the United Kingdom.

MARTIN: Yeah.

LANGFITT: But countries like Germany have been much more diplomatic. And so it'll be very interesting to see what comes out of this meeting today.

MARTIN: NPR's Frank Langfitt. Thank you.

LANGFITT: Good to talk, Rachel.

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MARTIN: What does justice look like for the families of Sandy Hook?

FADEL: Part of the answer came in a legal decision yesterday. The families of nine victims killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting have reached a $73 million settlement with Remington, the now-bankrupt manufacturer of the gun used by the shooter. Although federal laws protect gun-makers from lawsuits, the plaintiffs in this case argued that Remington's marketing of the Bushmaster AR-15 style rifle violated Connecticut consumer law. What's the broader significance of this case?

MARTIN: We're going to put that question to Connecticut Public Radio's Frankie Graziano. Frankie, thanks for being here.

FRANKIE GRAZIANO, BYLINE: Thank you for having me, Rachel.

MARTIN: How are the victims' families talking about this settlement?

GRAZIANO: Yeah, so almost all of the nine families represented in the suit took a turn to speak in a hotel ballroom I was in, in a town near Sandy Hook yesterday. Francine Wheeler's 6-year-old son Benjamin was among the 26 people killed in the shooting. She stood with her husband David.

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FRANCINE WHEELER: Our legal system has - give us some justice today. But David and I will never have true justice. True justice would be our 15-year-old healthy and standing next to us right now.

MARTIN: It's still hard to hear the families talk about that loss. What did they hope to achieve with this suit?

GRAZIANO: Yeah, they want to prevent more shootings, so getting as much money as they could from Remington's insurance company is one deterrent. But they also fought to be able to release documents they got during the discovery phase of the suit - documents, the plaintiffs say, shows wrongdoing on behalf of Remington Arms.

MARTIN: What kind of documents, exactly?

GRAZIANO: Ones that the plaintiffs say show that Remington targeted their marketing specifically to insecure young men. They had a man-card ad that they had. They used those documents to bypass the immunity that's protected gun-makers in the past for how their products are used. The plaintiffs' attorney Josh Koskoff said the documents show Remington knew that the type of gun used at Sandy Hook was a combat weapon.

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JOSH KOSKOFF: A combat weapon was used not by a highly trained soldier but by a deeply troubled kid.

GRAZIANO: The plaintiffs say that Remington's marketing constituted unfair trade practices under Connecticut law, and that's how they were able to hold Remington into account here. I should say, I reached out to defense attorney James Vogts. Remington hasn't commented on the settlement, which still needs a judge's approval. Nicole Hockley lost her 6-year-old son Dylan in the shooting. She said that the suit sends a message that industries that support gun companies, like banking, insurance, can also be held accountable.

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NICOLE HOCKLEY: Which will save lives and stop more shootings.

MARTIN: But let me ask about that, then. Does the settlement really make gun manufacturers accountable in a new way for crimes carried out with the weapons they make?

GRAZIANO: This is a really unique case, and it's, like, seven years old at this point. And they tried to at one point get it to the Supreme Court. So it was really important that they didn't, at least in terms of arguing against the federal law that really protects gun-makers in that regard. So they used the local law, and that's how they were really able to win here. So it seems, at least that's how they're treating that, this is unprecedented in that regard.

MARTIN: Connecticut Public Radio's Frankie Graziano. Thank you. We appreciate it.

GRAZIANO: Thank you for having me, Rachel.

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MARTIN: OK. Any parent can tell you this or anyone who knows kids - the pandemic has been very, very hard on the emotional health of children.

FADEL: Yeah. Several advocacy groups have been looking at this problem. They've come out with two new reports that revealed just how deeply this is being felt across the country and what states are doing to address it.

MARTIN: NPR's health correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee is with us this morning. Hey, Rhitu.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: A lot of us just know this from our own experience that the emotional well-being of our children has taken a hit over the last couple years. So what is new in these reports?

CHATTERJEE: Well, the big takeaway of one of the reports is that nearly 90% of Americans are concerned about the well-being of the next generation, and 80% of parents of kids under 18 are worried about their own kids. Angela Kimball is with Inseparable, one of the many organizations involved in the reports, and here's what she told me.

ANGELA KIMBALL: Across different incomes, different political stripes - like, essentially, very consistent sense that youth today are struggling.

CHATTERJEE: And she says a majority feels that lawmakers need to address the youth mental health crisis and that school-based services are an important and necessary part of the solution.

MARTIN: OK, so what does that mean? What should schools be doing that they're not?

CHATTERJEE: Yeah, so there's a range of things, and many schools are already doing some of these, like including mental health in health curricula so that educators can give students language to talk about what they might experience, to educate teachers about signs and symptoms to look for so that they can connect students to help when needed. And schools have been bringing in more counselors and psychologists. And for kids with more complex mental illnesses, schools need to be able to help them access ongoing care in the community.

MARTIN: As you have looked at this issue, which states are getting it right?

CHATTERJEE: So in one of the reports, Colorado, Washington state, Illinois and Nevada are among the top states. Kimball says that Colorado is a good example because it's doing several things right, like leveraging Medicaid to cover school-based mental health services, including telehealth, to all eligible students. And...

KIMBALL: Another thing that they are doing particularly well is in an area that we call healthy school climate. So they've adopted legislation around anti-bullying, around anti-discrimination - so create a more inclusive environment for marginalized students.

CHATTERJEE: Because we know that marginalized students are at a higher risk of mental health problems. And Kimball and others involved in the report say that they hope that federal and state lawmakers will adopt and implement these kinds of measures to improve school-based mental health care.

MARTIN: I will say that as a parent of young kids, even though you know it intrinsically that children are having a hard time, it does help to hear that it's being taken seriously by schools and...

CHATTERJEE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Potentially lawmakers?

CHATTERJEE: Yeah, actually. Yes, very much so. There have been several congressional hearings on the topic in recent months, including one this week, and both mental health professionals and young people have testified. One of them is 17-year-old Trace Terrell, who volunteers at a teen-to-teen crisis hotline and shared with the Senate Finance Committee some texts he's received recently.

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TRACE TERRELL: 4:07 p.m. - I just need someone to talk to. 4:37 p.m. - my dad hit me, but you can't call the cops. 5:23 p.m. - I need therapy, but my family can't afford it. 8:07 p.m. - I just lost my dad, and I can't stop crying.

CHATTERJEE: And Terrell urged lawmakers to invest in school-based mental health services, and there's bipartisan support in doing so.

MARTIN: NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee. Thank you so much for this. We appreciate it.

CHATTERJEE: Thank you.

MARTIN: If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.