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Gov. Abbott: Texas Tech Program Could Prevent School Shootings

The governor is touting a telemedicine program at Texas Tech as a possible tool to prevent school shootings. But could it work statewide?

Gov. Abbott - School Safety Roundtable2
Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a roundtable discussion on school safety, May 22, 2018 in Austin. It was the first of several planned discussions following the shooting at Santa Fe High School.

Gov. Greg Abbott is touting a program from Texas Tech as a possible tool to prevent school shootings.

Following one of his roundtable discussions on preventing shootings, such as last week’s at Santa Fe High School, the governor touted a program called TWITR — the Telemedicine Wellness, Intervention, Triage and Referral Project. The governor suggested this program, currently serving a handful of schools in West Texas, could be expanded statewide.

Dr. Billy Philips heads up the project. He’s executive vice president for rural and community health at Texas Tech’s Health Sciences Center. In the audio above, he tells Houston Matters host Craig Cohen how the project works.

How does the program work?

Texas Tech has long had a telemedicine program, which uses the Internet and telecommunications technology to connect rural residents with health professionals without participant having to travel. Many schools in rural areas don’t have adequate counselors on staff — or any at all. And, in some places, the nearest mental health professional could be miles away. So, TWITR connects them electronically. The program is being used in ten rural school districts in and around Lubbock, Philips said.

He likens the program to a “classic screening program” — something health professionals have been doing for year for other diseases.

“The idea of the program is to find kids that need help,” Philips said. “They may or may not be violent. We certainly look for that pattern. But we look for lots of other patterns.”

The program then seeks to navigate students into appropriate care for their situation. At the beginning of every school year — and periodically again throughout the year — the program trains school personnel with skills to recognize early warning signs for which a student could be referred into the program.

Philips says roughly 40,000 students are enrolled in the schools TWITR serves. Since 2014, a little more than 400 students have been referred. Of those, only 200 or so have been screened or “triaged” by telemedicine. So far, Philips says 25 students have been recommended for removal from school.

“So, those are kids that somebody thought needed some attention,” Philips said. “So, we’re looking at a very small segment of the school population.”

Ten roses left in memory of the victims killed in a shooting at the Santa Fe High School on May 20, 2018.

What does the program look for?

The screening processes looks for depression, anxiety, loneliness, isolation, a propensity for anger, and impulsiveness, Philips says. And it doesn’t rely solely on any one tool to paint a picture of a student’s mental state.

“When we identify somebody as having, say, a propensity for violent, impulsive behavior, we’re pretty sure that we’re accurate in that,” he said.

The presence of those signs generates a referral to a licensed professional counselor who will visit the student. From there, it will be determined if the issue is something that can be helped locally or if the student needs to be screened further. Eventually, the student could be seen by a child or adolescent psychiatrist via telemedicine. From there, a student could be recommended for removal from school.

“What that mostly looks like is hospitalization or some other form of intensive treatment,” Philips said. “Occasionally, it looks like an arrest. But the idea is really not to engage a criminal justice process. The idea is to get that individual into the right kind of care for the situation they find themselves in.”

At the beginning of the school year, parents have to consent for their children to be a part of the program and must provide further consent at different stages along the way.

This undated photo from Facebook shows Dimitrios Pagourtzis, who has been charged with capital murder for the deadly school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas.

Could the program work elsewhere?

Philips says he doesn’t think the Lubbock program should specifically run TWITR statewide for other districts. Some schools might already have similar programs and more trained personnel on staff. However, he wants to identify the districts that do want to participate and help them implement a version of the program there.

“Build it locally so it can be efficient, effective, and as inexpensive as possible,” Philips said.

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Michael Hagerty

Michael Hagerty

Senior Producer, Houston Matters

Michael Hagerty is the Senior Producer for Houston Matters. He has a degree in journalism from Abilene Christian University and has served as news director for NPR and PBS stations around Texas and The West, including: KUNR-FM in Reno, Nev.; KNPB-TV in Reno, Nev.; and KWBU-TV/FM in Waco, Texas. He...

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