LA County Supervisor Janice Hanh unveils the new campaign for students to connect with mental health professionals to assess the risk in their classmates’ behavior using the School Threat Assessment Response Team (START) program. (Photo by John Orona)
Facing a growing mental health crisis in classrooms, Los Angeles County school and mental health officials are now looking to fellow students to help identify and stop campus violence before it starts.
At the El Rancho Youth Center Boys and Girls Club in Pico Rivera Friday, Supervisor Janice Hahn along with school and city officials urged students to take advantage of the county’s School Threat Assessment Response Team (START) program, which helps assess and respond to potential school threats.
“We know that young people who’ve committed school violence often mentioned or discussed their plans beforehand, often with other students, or on social media,” Hahn said. “So we need to make sure that students who witness these early signs know about the START Program and know that they have trusted adults that they can call.”
For years the program, operated by mental health professionals trained in risk assessments who work with law enforcement and schools to mitigate threats, has been targeted at school staff, but now officials are pushing students to be involved in monitoring their peers.
“One of the most powerful weapons we have is the ability for our young people to have some agency in their own hands to feel like they don’t just have to wait around for something scary to happen and be anxious about it but there’s something they can do to be a part of the solution,” said L.A. County Department of Mental Health Director Lisa Wong.
“We’re hoping to put it in the hands of the people who usually see the signs before everybody else sees them.”
According to the program’s lead clinician Dr. Nichola Beliz, their mental health professionals focus on a students behavior rather than their words for signs of being a potential threat to themselves or others — like fascination with previous mass shooters or preoccupation with the military or white supremacy ideology.
“Basically what we do is collect more data to see the level of risk at that point. Our interventions vary but basically the other person on the end of the phone will be able to guide the concerned individual in the right direction, whether they call local police or they get in contact with their mental health partners in the community,” Beliz said.
On top of the renewed focus on students, the program expanded from 10 clinicians working the phones for all of LA County to 42.
The new campaign features social media ads, PSA from school shooting survivor Mia Tretta, and in-school posters in 200 high schools to encourage students to contact the START program if they witness concerning or threatening behavior by a fellow student.
The campaign’s tagline, “If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t,” was developed through focus groups with students at Saugus and Arcadia High Schools.
People can access START program resources by calling (213) 739-5565 or emailing START@dmh.lacounty.gov, which will anonymously connect them with a mental health professional to assess their situation. A text service is also being worked on.
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