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Counseling, Mental Health Access Dominate Federal School Safety Meeting

By Alyson Klein — July 11, 2018 4 min read
Crime scene tape runs outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in the days after the Feb. 14 fatal shooting there.
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Students—especially those from vulnerable populations and children in remote areas—aren’t getting nearly enough access to mental health services.

That’s according to a slew of experts who testified before the federal school safety commission Wednesday. The panel has been charged with making recommendations for combatting mass school shootings in the wake of the February 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. In general, the commission is not considering the role of guns in school shootings, except on a limited number of topics, to the consternation of many advocates.

Experts in general pushed for greater access to mental health, including in schools. But they had differing perspectives on whether privacy laws make it harder for educators to share information and prevent a potential shooting.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is the chair of the commission, but this meeting, held at the Old Executive Office Building, was hosted by the Department of Health and Human Services. And it was only the second meeting to include all four cabinet secretaries that make up the official membership of the panel: DeVos, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen. (Sessions left the meeting about half way through.)

One big topic of discussion: The impact of psychotropic drugs on student mental health. Oliver North, the incoming president of the National Rifle Association, has suggested that Ritalin and other psychiatric drugs are responsible for mass shootings, despite evidence to the contrary. Kentucky GOP Gov. Matt Bevin also made the link during a previous commission hearing.

Neither of the experts that spoke to the panel directly connected psychotropic drugs with school shootings.

In fact, Gabrielle A. Carlson, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics and director of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at the State University of New York, suggested that some psychiatric drugs can help students with significant mental health issues remain in the community, rather than being institutionalized.

Mark Olfson, a professor of psychiatry and epidemiology and mental health services researcher and research psychiatrist at Columbia University and New York State Psychiatric Institute, agreed that psychiatric can help kids with certain conditions, such as autism and bipolar disorder. But he’s worried that they are overprescribed. He suggested that children should get access to talk therapy before jumping to medication.

When asked a recent increase in teenage suicide, Olfson argued that access to guns is part of the picture.

Sheryl Kataoka, a professor-in-residence in the University of California Los Angeles division of child and adolescent psychiatry, made a pitch for a serious expansion of mental health services in schools and training more educators on social-emotional learning. More than one in five children has some sort of mental health disorder, she said, but less than half get the treatment they need.

Kids are far more likely to get help in a school setting than a community based one, she said. In one study, just 9 out of 60 children completed treatment in a community-based center, while 53 out of 58 finished their treatment in a school-based setting. Access to mental health treatment is a particular problem for poor children.

The commission also considered whether privacy laws need a makeover in order to help prevent school shootings.

Sessions kicked off the hearing by noting that school resource officers, police, and others have information about students but may not be able to share it openly.

“Police are taught to maintain privacy in what they do,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be good if all the people who were involved could discuss a child pretty openly?” He added that there may not need to be changes to privacy laws, including the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act or FERPA. “It may be that the laws are not as restrictive as we think they are. Certainly, there’s a perception out there that you can not share information.”

Some families in Parkland have questioned whether police, school, and mental health officials could have shared more information about the gunman and whether such information sharing would have helped them intervene sooner.

At least one expert, Sonja Trainor, the Managing Director of Legal Advocacy at the National School Boards Association, suggested that there may need to be tweaks to FERPA or its guidance to make sure educators have the discretion to share information to head off an incident like the Parkland massacre.

“The goal behind any change would be to remove a barrier to collaboration in schools and community services, including law enforcement, that would prevent a particular act of violence, such as a school shooting,” she said.

But John Verdi, the vice president of policy at the Future of Privacy Forum, an advocacy organization, had concerns about large-scale changes to FERPA.

“Mentally ill students can be disincentivized from seeking help if they fear that their privacy is not protected,” he said. “In some cases inappropriate disclosures to parents can put students at risk for abuse within their homes.”

Doris A. Fuller, an advocate whose daughter died by suicide after a struggle with mental illness, made a case for sharing information with parents as much as possible. She said she met parents who did not realize their children were mentally ill until they took their own lives, while others had evidence had evidence of their struggle.

“For the child, [that’s] privacy all the way to the grave,” she said. “Family members may not recognize mental health symptoms. Families are not a replacement for a mental health system.”