Wednesday, February 28, 2018

By Elizabeth Marcellino


LOS ANGELES—The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to bolster a program geared toward identifying troubled kids in order to prevent school shootings and other violence.

Supervisors Janice Hahn and Kathryn Barger championed the plan to enhance the School Threat Assessment Response Team, which was established in 2009.

"It's been almost two weeks since 17 people were killed by a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida," Hahn said. "Our own schools in L.A. County are not immune."

In addition to foiling a shooting plot at El Camino High School in South Whittier—by a student who had two AR-15 rifles, two handguns and 90 high-capacity ammunition magazines at home—authorities have responded to threats in Long Beach, Santa Clarita, Inglewood, Bellflower and Cerritos since the Florida shooting, Hahn said.

The START team received 63 threats last week, but has only 10 mental health professionals to respond to those threats, she said.

"In a county of 10 million people, I think we need more than 10 people working on this case," Hahn said.

Barger said she agreed with proposals to increase the legal age for gun ownership, but also hopes to see more focus on the root causes of gun violence in schools.

Barger said she listened to 911 calls made by 19-year-old alleged Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz, a former student at the school.

"His mother had died and he was crying out for help ... nothing was done," Barger said.

Parents need to know where to seek mental health care for their children and others who can help must step in to take action, Barger told her colleagues.

After receiving a credible threat, START team members visit the school, evaluate the student and go to the student's home. In most cases, they can recommend counseling. However, in more serious cases, a student may be put in a locked psychiatric ward for 72 hours for observation and treatment—or arrested, if a crime has been committed.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Chief Steve Johnson said the value of the START program is "you don't have to wait for a 911 call."

The program differs from other mental health teams that partner with sheriff's deputies to respond to calls on the street in that START's primary focus is prevention and intervention.

During the last year, the START team worked with 127 students referred by school faculty, law enforcement and other professionals, aiming to prevent not just school violence but other potential tragedies.

Elaine Williams, school safety chief for the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District—which includes El Camino High School—told the board that the district had two student suicides this school year.

Sheriff's Chief Warren Asmus said a "potentially devastating" tragedy was prevented at El Camino High School in part because a longtime school security officer alerted authorities. He argued that it showed the value of having sheriff's deputies and other security on school campuses.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl agreed with expanding START, but said gun control legislation is also critical.

Kuehl cited a post she saw online by a mother who wrote, "If my son hits someone with a stick, I don't blame the stick, but I still take the stick away."

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said limiting the availability of high- powered rifles and handguns is the key.

"Someone said it's the price of freedom. That price is way too high," Ridley-Thomas said. "The bottom line is that we have to confront the gun lobby like never before."

The board voted unanimously in support of the motion, which directs staffers from various county departments to reach out to community groups and report back in 30 days with recommendations on potentially expanding START and finding other ways to enhance its effectiveness.

"Until Congress passes real comprehensive gun violence prevention legislation, we should not be surprised to see more mass shootings in this country," Hahn said. "That won't stop us from doing everything we can at the local level to protect our kids."