By Leslie Belt, Contributor
In a bid to increase safety for millions of Angelinos of all ages returning to school this fall, the Los Angeles County Mental Health Department has significantly expanded the size and scope of its comprehensive threat prevention and management program. Known as the School Threat Assessment Response Team, START, program, this innovative partnership between county mental health professionals, schools and local law enforcement has proven critical to the prevention of school violence since its inception in 2009. This expansion was passed in a motion authored by Supervisors Janice Hahn and Kathryn Barger.
The START program is designed to address threat prevention and management challenges in school settings, including elementary, middle, high schools, community colleges, trade schools and university campuses. Within the City of Los Angeles, the START team works closely with the Los Angeles Police Department, and other school districts and law enforcement agencies countywide. With this expansion, which was formally announced by Hahn and Barger on Aug. 12, the START program staff has grown from 10 to 42 members to address recent upticks in school violence.
During the 2017-18 school year, reported threats of violence in Los Angeles school districts increased by about 70 percent. More than half were directed at junior and high school campuses. Almost a quarter were made in the week following the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
At the heart of the program’s innovative approach to preventing and managing the threat of school violence is START’s 24/7 access hotline. Teachers, administrators, counselors, students and parents can call this toll-free phone line (see below) with any information about possible threats or concerning behaviors. In response, START mental health professionals are immediately empowered to take a range of actions to address any situations brought to their attention.
“Students probably have the most information about each other,” Hahn said. “They are the closest. … My message to them is to speak up. If you feel like you have heard something that doesn’t sound right, or could be a potential threat to other students. We will respond to that. We will assess the situation and work on getting resources to that particular student. All students need to pay attention to their fellow students. We want our students to have a good experience in school. We want them to be nervous about what they are going to wear on the first day, not whether or not there is going to be a shooting at their school. That’s what we are trying to do here. We are increasing the number adults and resources to keep all students safe.”
If you are in crisis and need help right away, call toll-free, 24/7 access helpline: 1-800-854-7771