Preventing Violence Through the Recognition of Risk

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The Los Angeles School Department takes the threat of violent behavior seriously. Dr. Tony Beliz, the Deputy Director of the Mental Health department heads up the School Threat Assessment Response Team where the focus is to recognize young people who have the potential to engage in a violent act and to initiate action to prevent that risk from becoming a reality. Dr. Beliz’s work follows the template of the National Threat Assessment Center operated by the Secret Service.

By working with school administrators, psychologists, social workers, teachers and others, Dr. Beliz’s team looks for specific young people in schools who are at-risk for committing a violent act and initiating actions which will prevent that person from causing harm. The School Threat Assessment Team uses mental health resources, including short-term involuntary hospitalization under the mental health law to identify the risk level and move the person into the resources and services they need. Dr. Beliz addresses how important it is to try to maintain the person within the school system as opposed to suspension or expulsion tactics which place the person outside of a structured environment where controls can be implemented and into an environment where there is simply too much unsupervised time.

These risk prevention programs can be effective only when there is a mechanism to recognize individuals who are at-risk for violence. In several of the recent situations, the individual was no longer a student and was unknown to mental health or law enforcement authorities. We must look at ways in which these risk prevention programs can be expanded to include colleges and universities, the workplace and other environments in which people who are at-risk for violent acts can be recognized.

It is important to remember that having a mental illness does not mean that the person will be violent. Most often the person with a mental illness is the victim. There are however people with severe mental health issues which can result in violence if their risk remains unknown and if the appropriate systems in our community don’t take action. We need to look at the Threat Assessment models which are available to us and install them in our communities. The first step to preventing violence is early recognition of the person who is at-risk.

Click here to read the New York Times story about Dr. Beliz and his program.

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