In an attempt to prevent bloodshed on campuses, Colorado is on the verge of passing a law permitting therapists to alert schools about patients who pose even a non-imminent threat (“Colorado Looks to Broaden Therapists’ Power to Prevent School Shootings,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 7). Under existing state law, they are mandated reporters only if patients express a specific, imminent threat. Once passed, the law would apply to all public and private schools, and to all post-secondary institutions.
This is an example of how a well intentioned law can have unintended consequences. If patients know that what transpires behind closed doors is no longer confidential, it will chill the entire therapeutic process, since trust is essential for a successful outcome. It also has the potential to expose therapists to lawsuits if they report a patient who is placed on a danger list but does not act out.
When I was teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District, all teachers in the mammoth system were instructed about our duties as mandated reporters. The issue at that time was students who exhibited signs of physical abuse. We were told that we were legally required to report those students to school officials, who would then pass the information on to trained investigators. Our names would not be revealed. The underlying message was that it was always better to err on the side of overreaction.
I don’t know if Colorado will become a model for other states. But if it does, therapy will enter a new era. That’s because the proposed law says therapists can use their “reasonable judgment” in determining behavior that could create “a dangerous environment in a school that may jeopardize the safety or well-being of students, faculty, staff, parents, or the general public.” I’m not a lawyer, but that seems overally broad. I wouldn’t be surprised if that provision were enough to place the entire law in legal jeopardy.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.