Utah Lawmaker Proposes Putting a Team in Every School to Catch Red Flags

Aug 14, 2018, 6:30 PM | Updated: 10:01 pm

BOUNTIFUL, Utah — In the aftermath of the Valentine’s Day shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, the Utah Legislature established a special commission to explore the issues of school safety.

It quickly learned a tragic common denominator of school massacres: People typically look back after the fact and realize there were warning signs that everyone missed — or didn’t take seriously.

Now, with a push from the Utah Safe Schools Commission, Utah is moving toward a mental health approach that’s designed to catch those red flags and do something about them before a tragedy takes place.

Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, talks about the mental health approach to school safety.

Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, is carrying the commission recommendation into the next session of the Legislature.

“I would say the most important recommendation,” Ward said, “was what are called threat assessment teams. Or we could call them mental health teams.”

His bill will require those teams in every school. It would also provide funding for more mental health professionals in schools.

It’s similar to the threat assessment approach that’s been solidifying in Virginia over the past two decades. Experts in that state told KSL last March they have seen excellent results.

“Students and teachers report feeling safer and more positive about their schools using a threat assessment approach,” said professor Dewey Cornell, a University of Virginia clinical psychologist who studies school safety issues.

Students study at Albemarle High School in Charlottesville, Va., in March 2018.

In each Utah school, Ward’s bill would create a threat assessment team comprising a school administrator, a representative of law enforcement and a mental health professional. Anytime a threat is reported or perceived, the team would meet to investigate and probe the underlying problems that led to the threat.

“To understand the level of the threat is the main purpose of the team,” Ward said, “together with having the tools to respond.”

Those tools might include — in serious cases — a law enforcement solution. But the team could also decide to help a troubled student with counseling, therapy or social services.

That opportunity — to help a student with his troubles — is why some Virginians who spoke to KSL in March are sold on the concept.

“What we see is reductions in suspensions, reductions in bullying, reductions in fighting, and students reporting a more positive school climate,” said Dewey Cornell, a University of Virginia clinical psychologist.

“Once the children understand, and feel as though they are supported, and feel that they have a pathway to help them, I’ve never seen it not work,” said Jesse Turner, principal of Albemarle High School in Charlottesville, Virginia.

It’s not easy to measure the success of a school safety program. After all, it’s impossible to count up the number of mass shootings that didn’t happen. But in Virginia, experts are convinced it works because of other kinds of data.

“What we see,” Cornell said, “is reductions in suspensions, reductions in bullying, reductions in fighting, and students reporting a more positive school climate.”

The Davis School District in Farmington has 13 mental health workers stretched across 90 schools and 74,000 students.

The Davis School District already uses a similar approach: Each school has a local team that’s supported by 13 mental health professionals at the district level.

“Prevention versus reactivity is always best practice,” said Brad Christensen, the Davis School District’s director of student and family resources.

Right now, though, the district’s 13 mental health workers are stretched across 90 schools — and 74,000 kids — so Christensen said more money for mental health professionals would be welcome.

“Not just for addressing aggression threats,” he said. “Depression. Suicide. It fills a number of roles there.”

Ward has opened a bill file for the upcoming legislative session, but the bill has not yet been written. He said he’s working with the governors office and with education officials to draft the legislation. He plans to introduce it when the Legislature convenes in January.

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Utah Lawmaker Proposes Putting a Team in Every School to Catch Red Flags