Senate Select Committee on School Violence and Security
In June and July, the Senate Select Committee on School Violence and Security met to determine how to make schools safer and reduce the threat of mass shootings. The Committee focused on two main areas; red flag laws and examining mental health needs on school campuses. These areas address reducing access to guns to people who seek to harm themselves or others and to provide treatment and counseling to students in order to improve mental health in schools. The Committee’s interim report, released August 6, recommends increasing school mental health resources, helping schools to increase physical security, and increasing the presence of armed school marshals and other individuals in schools. The Committee did not make any recommendations concerning red flag laws beyond clarifying existing laws.
Emergency orders of protection, or red flag laws, are designed to temporarily remove weapons from a person who is threatening to harm themselves or those around them. Red flag advocates argue that the laws currently in place do little to prevent someone who is making threats or going through a mental health crisis to have their guns and ammunition removed. Families, mental health professionals, and authorities are unable to preemptively act, and instead must wait until a crime is committed or the person’s behavior escalates. Advocates for red flag laws explain that these laws would help to reduce suicide deaths and could be helpful in reducing mass shootings. There is also a grey area in the current law concerning convicted felons, those convicted of domestic violence, and those found incompetent by the courts. These convictions and decisions all make a person ineligible to own guns and ammunition. While these people are barred from buying new guns and ammunition, prosecutors and other authorities noted that it was unclear in the law if they are able to remove guns or how those removals could take place. Red flag laws could help to clarify the law and create the avenues for gun removal.
While both red flag laws and a focus on school mental health offer solutions to improve safety across Texas, improving mental health care in schools offers positive outcomes beyond reducing potential gun violence. Another reason to focus on school mental health is that it has greater public and legislative support than revising gun laws. The Committee’s interim report makes it clear that they are not interested in pursuing red flag laws apart from clarifying the existing laws, while they are interested in expanding mental health resources in schools.
A common refrain in the Senate hearings was that many mass shooters do not have a mental health condition and most people living with a mental health condition are not violent and are not at risk of becoming violent. According to Dr. Andy Keller of the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, almost half of Texas students will experience mild to moderate mental health needs. These kids will benefit from a greater availability of mental health professionals and programs but are not at risk of developing a harsher mental condition or perpetuating violence. With more stringent mental health conditions, the risk of violence does increase above the risk of same age peers. Dr. Keller noted that there were around 20,000 of these high-risk kids in Texas and within that group about 900 are at a 15 times greater risk of committing violence. These high needs kids are not guaranteed perpetuators of violence. If they receive treatment and support, that risk of violence is mitigated. When seeking to reduce violence in schools, these 20,000 students, particularly the 900 high risk kids, should be the primary focus of treatment and programs. Dr. Keller was clear to point out that not all school shooters are in this group, and increasing treatment will not stop school violence, but it will reduce violence and will lead to better outcomes for the students.
There are two broad categories to address the mental health needs for schools: diagnosis and treatment. Within these two strategies there are a number of programs to properly diagnose and offer care to Texas students. In addition to these overarching strategies were secondary goals of destigmatizing mental health conditions and creating more closely-knit communities in schools.
One group that is already doing this work is Legacy Community Health of Houston. Legacy currently works in KIPP and YES Prep schools in the Houston area providing physical and behavioral health care for students in their schools. Legacy is able to offer both diagnosis of conditions and treatment at school, during the school day. This means that parents do not have to take time out of their work schedule to pick up their child and take the child to a separate office for treatment. This is especially helpful in granting access to mental health resources to families who have previously been unable to access them due to financial and other burdens.
Another benefit to Legacy operating directly in the schools is that it reduces stigma surrounding mental health conditions and helps to create a community in the school. Legacy mental health professionals work with teachers to identify which students are at risk or would benefit from their services. The teacher introduces the student to the mental health professional, helping to put the child at ease. Legacy staff are a part of the school community and the fact that students receive treatment on school grounds helps to reduce stigma and make students more able to seek help and discuss what they are going through.
Another aspect of Legacy’s mental health program in schools is that they work with the school’s own mental health professionals. Legacy staff are able to provide treatment and expert knowledge while the school staff are able to focus on their own duties. This provides additional people trained in mental health so that at-risk students can be identified more quickly and easily gain access to treatment.
Legacy’s program, along with the school mental health staff and other programs are important and create a difference in students’ outcomes, but demand for mental health programs and professionals in schools vastly overshadows what is available. As several senators and testifying experts pointed out throughout the hearings, many schools operate without mental health professionals or with those professionals working in different areas than what they were hired to do. When mental health professionals are available, they are nowhere close to meeting the federally recommended ratios of mental health staff to students.
While Texas will not be able to immediately hire the thousands of mental health professionals that would put Texas in compliance with federal guidelines, there are steps that can be taken. The Committee expressed interest in increasing school mental health professionals, particularly in rural areas, as well as increasing telemedicine. Telemedicine provides diagnostic resources and some forms of treatment to remote areas that do not have the same access to mental health professionals. The Committee also recommended teaching mental health first aid to school employees.
These recommendations offer a positive start to addressing mental health needs in schools, but there are several areas that would benefit from additional consideration. The committee did not make any recommendations that would help programs like Legacy’s expand through grants or other funding opportunities. The state could also work on addressing students with the most severe mental health conditions as they work to expand services for all students. The Committee recommended increasing the number of school mental health professionals, but this does not guarantee that the highest need students will receive adequate attention. Expanding these services and offering access to treatment will go a long way to reduce school violence, including self-harm, and in leading to better academic and social outcomes for students.
John R. Pitts and Ned Ryan