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Texas senators consider mental health’s role in school safety

July 18, 2018 | By Reena Diamante

Texas senators continue to examine ways to strengthen school safety, and instead of focusing on firearms, they are shifting their attention to how schools can better address mental health.

After the mass shootings in Parkland, Florida, and Santa Fe, Texas, Texas schools are seeing a spike in students getting arrested for making terroristic threats and exhibiting firearms, according a to a new report by several advocacy groups, including Texas Appleseed. From January through May this year, there were 1,212 arrests for terroristic threats, a 156 percent increased compared to the same time period last year, and 259 referrals for exhibition of firearms, a 600 percent increase compared to the same time period last year.

Advocates said it seems schools are shifting toward a “zero-tolerance policy,” which unnecessarily funnels students into the juvenile justice system.

“When things are scary on a campus the feeling is that you want an immediate solution and you want to address that fear very quickly, but what we really need to do is invest in a lot of those prevention and intervention methods including mental and behavioral health supports,” said Morgan Craven, the director of School-to-Prison Pipeline Project for Texas Appleseed.

Mental health was at the center of the latest round of school safety hearings, Wednesday. The Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security is reviewing expert testimony about the need for a multi-tiered system of support addressing and detecting the range of mental illnesses in students.

“Mental illness itself, mild to moderate, is not a risk factor for violence. When they do studies, it does not increase the likelihood of someone being violent,” said Dr. Andy Keller, president and CEO of Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute. “Similarly, when someone says you have to be crazy or out your mind or whatever the term is in order to commit violence is wrong. It is very human to commit violence. It’s a thing that people do. We do it less than we used to, but it’s still a part of human nature.”

Keller recommends focusing on the 20,000 Texas youth who at higher risk for violence if they do not get treatment.

“Think about the history of cancer. Cancer we didn’t talk about it,” Keller said. “It’s stigma and hope of treatment. No one is going to want to go get treatment if they don’t think it’s out there.”

Doctors said instead of blaming violent video entertainment, it’s more effective to educate all children about social-emotional development as a preventative measure.

“We are not very good at predicting this needle in the haystack, who is going to end up being a mass shooter, so one of the things that I really like to do is to focus on the whole hay pile, and really do universal prevention programs where we target things like communication skills, conflict resolution skills, and really be there for all the kids,” said Dr. Jeff Temple, professor and psychologist and University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

Many argued among of the best people to help identify the few in most need are schools psychologists and counselors. Several people invited to testify recommend hiring more.

“If we don’t help these students with those problems that interfere with their education, how we can expect them to do well? How can we expect them to learn the necessary coping skills that they need just to handle life’s problems?” said Sharon Bey of the Texas School Counseling Association.

“It’s much more likely that those patients will follow through with treatment if they can be introduced to a counselor or to make that phone call with that patient,” said Dr. Clifford Moy, psychiatrist and former speaker of the Texas Medical Association House of Delegates.

The Senate committee plans to hold another meeting later this month on the so-called red flag laws that keep guns away from people perceived as threats.

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