Monday, January 28, 2013

The New Witch Hunt for Psycho Children

Future Serial Killers! (Image from Flickr by Ano Lobb@healthryx

Every time there is a new school massacre, school districts across the nation reevaluate, refine and retest their emergency protocols. The emphasis is always on training teachers in security procedures and identifying potential psychos—even though school shootings account for fewer than 10 deaths per year—with little or no emphasis on providing better overall mental health services for all children at school or improving the conditions they face at home and in their communities (e.g., chronic poverty or physical, mental and sexual abuse)—problems that affect thousands of children every year.

Thus it is reassuring to hear that some school districts are now looking into improving overall mental health services in their schools. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on Sunday that San Francisco Unified (SFUSD) is promoting a “new nationally recognized program to identify and help at-risk students,” in which teachers use standardized questionnaires to assess their students’ mental health.  For example, teachers are asked to determine whether a student often, occasionally or rarely seems depressed.

There are, however, several significant problems with the program. First, it requires teachers to do the job of mental health experts, something for which they are unqualified and untrained. While it is possible that this is intended to be the most efficient means of evaluating every child (there are far more teachers than mental health professionals in the school systems), it is also a way for districts to continue to underfund mental health services by having relatively inexpensive teachers do the work of comparatively more expensive psychologists and psychiatrists. Thus, while there may be improvement in the identification of children with mental health needs, there will continue to be insufficient resources to help them.

Another problem is that the program is inherently biased. For example, regardless of whether the program was designed in direct response to recent school shootings, its implementation now, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, will no doubt be in the back of teachers’ minds as they complete the surveys, potentially influencing their responses. Likewise, because the surveys are subjective (teachers are asked to rate each student on how often he or she exhibits each behavior), teachers could inadvertently (or deliberately) portray a student as at-risk because he was a disruptive thorn in the teacher’s side.

As a consequence of being so vague and open-ended the questionnaires are likely to lead to many false positives. Some of the questions could be answered affirmatively for large percentages of students who are simply typical teenagers with little to no risk of ever acting violently toward their peers, themselves or teachers (e.g., Is the student defiant or oppositional to adults? Does he get angry easily? Does she disrupt class activities or have difficulty sitting still?) None of these are evidence that a student will become a school shooter or even necessarily in need of mental health intervention.

According to the Chronicle, several teachers have already been disciplined for refusing to complete the surveys.

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