We’ve heard a lot of talk recently about the link between mental illness and school violence—talk that has the unfortunate consequence of making people afraid of kids who might be struggling, and a lot more likely to hurt themselves than anybody else. That fear and stigma in turn produces isolation—the worst thing for a depressed or angry teenager.
That’s why we were heartened to read about a new program in Los Angeles that does the opposite: encourages people to speak up when kids say or do something concerning, and then gets to know those kids. The LA program, as described in the New York Times, is dubbed the School Threat Assessment Response Team, and it appears to be remarkably successful.
“When we looked at kids who had committed attacks, the vast majority had come to the attention of an adult for a behavior that was concerning but would not necessarily cause someone to conclude they were planning an attack,” says a former Secret Service agent whose research provides the foundation for STARTS across the country. The LA team’s leader describes what happens when a young person at risk comes to their attention. “We’ll go to a school, evaluate the individual there, then what we’ll also do is go to the kid’s home and we’ll ask to see the bedroom and we’ll do a very data-driven assessment,” he says. “We’re trying to figure out, what are the triggers here? What are the risk factors? What’s really going on and how can we intervene?”
This obviously requires cooperation between mental health professionals, schools, police, and families that seems like it might be almost impossible in some cities and states. But beyond an “initial shock,” an affiliated detective says, “We get a lot of cooperation from parents…they want to know, too, what did I miss?”
This sort of intensive approach raises a lot of questions even as it appears to deliver results. Does it violate privacy? Do kids get caught up when they don’t deserve to? Perhaps—I suggest you read for yourself. But the program represents a crucial understanding that people who are hopeless and isolated can make disastrous choices—and that it takes a multipronged approach to help. From START’s website: “The goals are relatively straightforward: develop relevant partnerships to mitigate/eliminate threats; assist students of concern in their efforts to complete their education without incident; and prevent a Columbine or Virginia Tech incident.”
Put simply, we know that children’s mental health, the safety of the school environment, the strength of the community, a family’s ability to reach its potential—these are all interconnected. And the first step in aiding kids is providing a trusting framework of people close to them to be able to reach out and say, “He needs help.”