Since the mass shootings at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, campus safety officials across the country have given a lot of thought to preventing similar tragedies. The Virginia Tech shooter had clear mental health issues. Officials missed the warning signs because people on campus weren’t talking to each other, said Cheryl Newman-Tarwater, captain of the Community College Bureau for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Her unit provides public safety services for the Los Angeles Community College District.
The bureau created two School Threat Assessment Response Teams in September 2015 to enable officials from public safety, public health and the colleges to identify students who might need support for mental health issues and to provide that support in a comprehensive and ongoing way. With an average daily population of 150,000 at the LACCD campuses, an incident sparked by an untreated mental health problem is likely to happen. “It’s not a matter of if but when,” Newman-Tarwater said. “The bottom line is that mental health is often at the center of things that happen that are bad,” she added. But having a mental illness doesn’t mean that a student shouldn’t be successful, she said. The START teams work with students to ensure they are getting the services that will help them manage their mental health issues so that they can be successful.
The two START teams each include a deputy from the bureau and a mental health professional from the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.
The north team is based at one of the four colleges it serves, and the south team is based at one of the five colleges in its area.
The START program was launched in 2008 as a partnership between the Department of Mental Health and the Los Angeles Police Department, said Maria Luz Martinez, the mental health clinical supervisor for START who works for the Department of Mental Health. It was later expanded to be a countywide program serving students at both the K–12 and college levels. Before last September, LACCD officials could contact Martinez if they had had a concern about a student, but the colleges did not have START teams dedicated to serving their students.
In their first four months, the Community College Bureau’s two START teams had handled 72 referrals and completed 32 mental health threat assessments.
Referrals came from many sources, Newman-Tarwater said. The most common source has been the campus deans of discipline. But any member of the community can make a report if a student is behaving in a disturbing way. Some referrals have been initiated after a student made a disturbing post on social media.
Once a START team receives a referral, the mental health counselor will work to engage the student to find out more about what is going on. The first contact is made in a nonthreatening way, Martinez said. The counselor assures the student that the goal is for him to graduate and go on with his life. “We’re here to help you succeed” is the message team members convey.
START team members obtain written consent from the students so that they can communicate with the students’ parents and with faculty members at the community college.
Team members conduct a psychiatric assessment and a threat assessment. They evaluate the student’s environment, including conducting home visits, and they learn if the student has a history of mental health issues. The deputy checks to see if the student has a criminal record.
START team members make appointments at a mental health clinic for students if that is appropriate and make sure the students get to the appointments. They even transport students if necessary. Many students are already in the mental health system, but the services they are getting might not be as extensive as they need, Martinez said. And the START teams provide intensive case management that includes making sure students continue the treatment they need.
And the START teams never close cases. A student with a mental health problem could be stable one day and have her problem resurface another day, Martinez said.
Since launching the START teams for the community college district, Newman-Tarwater, Martinez, and the START team members have made multiple presentations on campus to make the communities aware that START is available and ensure students, faculty and staff know how to access it.
Since START is a countywide program, many others in the community also know about it and can share helpful information when necessary. For example, staff members at psychiatric hospitals know to communicate with community college officials if a patient on a 72-hour hold discloses any information related to a college. Plus, officials at community colleges in the county that are not part of LACCD and at universities in the county are trained. That’s important because students often enroll in multiple colleges, Martinez said.
And parents of students in the K–12 schools receive training. They learn what to look for and what to report, so they can be helpful.
The START program also works with psychiatrists and therapists to help them understand threat assessment, Martinez said. Some mental health care professionals aren’t familiar with threat assessment and how they can help, so officials provide that information.
Connect with students to support mental health initiative
Newman-Tarwater chose deputies to join the START teams who have a passion for mental health and who strongly support a community-based policing philosophy. “If folks don’t feel comfortable with us, they won’t make referrals,” she said.
Many students know they have a mental health problem, but they don’t know where to go to get help, Martinez said.
Since the deputy and clinician on the START team are based on campus, they are able to educate students about how to seek help and to build relationships that make it easier for students to come to them.
Collaborate to address mental health problems
A program like START requires the academic community, law enforcement and mental health to work together, Martinez said. If you want to create a similar program, collaboration between those three groups is essential.
And the organizations must commit to the program with funding. For the START program at the LASD Community College Bureau, the bureau provides two full-time deputies, and the Department of Mental Health provides two health care professionals. And college officials must participate by hosting presentations to make the community aware of the program and by encouraging referrals to the START teams.