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School safety panel gets to work

January 15, 2013 | Virginia News

News Image State of mental health system shows daunting task that Virginia faces

A top state official on Monday painted a picture of a mental health system without the resources to spot, much less stop, a perpetrator determined to do harm at a school.

During the first meeting of the governor’s Task Force on School and Campus Safety, James W. Stewart III, commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, gave the 45-member group a sobering assessment of the state’s mental health services.

Years of budget cuts and policy decisions effectively have limited access to services. He said people with mental illnesses are much more likely to be victims of crimes than criminals themselves, but either way, the state has trouble identifying and helping them.

“Virginia has not been an early intervention state,” said Stewart, also a member of the task force.

Schools don’t have the resources to help students, and communities across the state don’t have the resources to help much of anyone, he said. In some places, he added, there’s an eight-week wait for outpatient services.

“Imagine eight weeks for a teenager,” he said.

The remarks came near the end of a three-hour meeting in which the governor’s task force kicked off what will be a whirlwind process of determining needs and finding resources to help the state make its schools as safe as possible.

Materials from the first meeting of the Governor’s School and Campus Safety Task Force (PDF)

Gov. Bob McDonnell created the task force in response to the Newtown, Conn., school shooting in December, in which 20 students and six school employees were killed by an apparently mentally ill young man who shot his way into the school.

McDonnell popped in briefly and thanked the group for making time to meet and offered a challenge.

The governor said he was still “struggling to understand how that kind of evil can exist in modern America. It just defies what most of us can imagine is possible.”

The goal for the task force is determining, “Is there something we can do better?” he said. “If there are quick and easy solutions, I can present them to our General Assembly.”

He also left room for long-term solutions.

The task force was split into three working groups — one each for education, public safety and mental health. Those groups scheduled work sessions.

The groups will come together again Jan. 31, when members will create a single list of short-term priorities that McDonnell might be able to accomplish during the current legislative session. The task force will continue working after that, with a fuller report due in June.

“We have a very aggressive timeline,” said Secretary of Public Safety Marla Graff Decker, one of three co-chairs of the task force. “We need to be efficient, thorough and reasonable.”

She was clear in the beginning that the task force would not consider debate on gun control, school funding or specific legislation.

“That is not the realm of this task force,” she said. “We must be realistic.”

After the meeting, she said the big surprise of the day was the talk on mental health.

“Coming from Public Safety, I can say I’m familiar with that,” she said. “But the mental health information, I think that was the takeaway of the day.”

During his talk, Stewart showed a list of mass murderers. Most of them had no known mental health issues, he said, and even those who did escaped notice.

“No one stepped forward to help.” There’s a reluctance in society to address the problem, he said.

“We seem to fear liability and intrusion of privacy,” he said. “We need better options.”

BY ZACHARY REID | Richmond Times-Dispatch
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