LA County Looks to Boost School Safety, Prevent Campus Violence

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Back-to-school orientation in Los Angeles County will include training to prevent school violence, as the Board of Supervisors looks to expand a program that identifies and deals with threats on campus. 

Supervisors Janice Hahn and Kathryn Barger co-authored a motion aimed at strengthening the School Threat Assessment Response Team, a 10-person team of mental health professionals that helps principals, counselors, school security officers and parents who raise a red flag about individual students.

``I have no doubt that the START program has saved lives,'' Hahn said. 

``But this team's resources are stretched thin. In a county of over 10 million, we need more than a team of 10 people working on this issue.''

START team members evaluate students who talk about suicide, make threats or exhibit other alarming behavior, visiting the student's school and home as part of the assessment. In most cases, counseling is recommended, though more serious situations may lead to students being placed on a 72-hour hold in a psychiatric facility or arrested.``In partnership with law enforcement and our schools, the START program is an important tool that can work to prevent tragedies by responding to clear warning signs and cries for help by those who may be a danger to themselves or others,'' Barger said. 

In February, Hahn and Barger recommended beefing up the size of the START team. Since then, the team has received 133 calls of possible threats. A Department of Mental Health report developed in response to that earlier motion recommended a countywide awareness campaign and more training for students, teachers and community members so that they can recognize and report threats, among other ideas. 

However, the department said it doesn't have all the expertise needed to implement the recommendations. The board Tuesday approved a plan to hire an outside consultant to work out the details. In the interim, DMH will partner with the Los Angeles County Office of Education to distribute training materials, including a video, to all county school districts so that administrators can create campaigns to prevent school violence as students and teachers head back to campus. 

Barger said teachers are a critical part of the warning system around potential violence, because kids spend so much time in school.``This is going to ... teach them what to look for, the red flags" as well as help them understand the critical reporting role they serve, Barger said. 

Teaching kids, especially those with traumatic life experiences, how to handle their emotions is another important piece of training, Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told the board.``Most violence is preventable ... but people need a toolkit,'' Ferrer, who was a high school principal for years. 

``Everyone gets angry and everyone feels hurt and everyone feels disrespected, but we need tools that allow us to handle those feelings, which are normal feelings, in a way that doesn't hurt other people.''

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