Identify and help kids with severe antisocial behavior to improve school safety
by ALEX R. PIQUERO
Jun 04, 2018 | 403 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print

Gov. Greg Abbott has proposed 40 recommendations to improve school safety in the wake of the recent Santa Fe shooting. While his plan stopped short of the kinds of gun control policies implemented by Florida Gov. Rick Scott after the Parkland shooting, it prioritized recommendations from Abbott's recent three-day summit.

Although several recommendations focused on making schools safer by strengthening security and increasing law enforcement presence, what is critical is that the proposal included a resounding call for improving mental health assessments and services.

Steps in this direction would include providing mental health evaluations that identify students at risk of harming others or themselves, increasing mental health training, improving mental health crisis response, and most notably the expansion of Texas Tech University's Telemedicine Wellness, Intervention, Triage and Referral Project, which seeks to identify junior and high school students who show a risk of committing violence.

The priority on mental health is vital. But let's be clear about what we mean by mental health so as to not stigmatize the person given the label. After all, many readers have experienced depression, anger, rage, mood swings and the like, but most people experiencing these issues or episodes do not commit school violence or violence of any nature.

Efforts aimed at identifying individuals who exhibit severe antisocial tendencies and providing them the services they need should be a high priority, and this should not be limited solely to teenagers. In fact, it goes much further back. As my own research in the Journal of Criminal Justice has shown, conduct disorder, mental illness and antisocial behavior in early childhood left unaddressed can have long-term adverse impacts on children, their families and society at large.

Effective, evidence-based strategies here include cognitive behavioral therapy and social-emotional programs that focus on learning to manage one's emotions and changing a child's decision-making patterns and priorities. These programs not only generate positive returns on investment in the individual's life, but my research in the journal Criminology & Public Policy shows that the public has a greater interest in spending money on early interventions than punishing people as adults.

At the same time, it is also important to bear in mind that simply because someone exhibits some of these characteristics does not mean that person will always react negatively. Conversely, the fact that someone does not exhibit any issues does not guarantee the person will never engage in an atrocious act. In some school shootings, we read later that the "signs were always there," but in other cases they were not. Great care must be taken to ensure that we do the best we can at predicting what humans might do. It is not always a simple answer with 100 percent accuracy.

The Governor and all of the constituents he brought to Austin should be commended for starting conversations about an issue that many of us wish were not even a topic of conversation. But it is.

Yes, we will have more conversations in the future. Yes, we will have more recommendations in the future. And yes, we will have some tangible actions in the future. Above all else, we need to remember what South African revolutionary and president Nelson Mandela once observed, "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." The students in Florida, Texas and many other states are leading the way. In that sense, when it is their turn to lead, we are in good stead.

Alex R. Piquero is a criminology professor and associate dean for graduate programs in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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