Multiple States Seek to Expand Invasive Mental Health Screening in Schools


In the wake of multiple horrific school shootings — particularly the Parkland, Fla., massacre where 17 people were murdered by a student long-known to have mental issues — states all over the nation have been moving to expand mental health screening, treatment, and data collection. The two most prominent states are Florida and Texas, but Georgia and other states are also joining this dangerous craze.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Safety Act (extensively discussed in this space) expanded mental screening of students by unqualified, minimally trained teachers and other school personnel despite admissions by psychiatric physicians trained for years that they are unable to correctly identify those known mentally ill patients that will become violent. The psychiatrist that extensively studied the history of the Sandy Hook shooter that killed 26 young children and teachers said about the Parkland shooting:

It really means we can’t rely on prediction and identifying the bad guys. Because we’ll misidentify some who aren’t bad guys, and we’ll fail to identify others who may become bad guys.

If a highly trained psychiatrist is saying that, why should we put that enormous responsibility on already overburdened teachers?

This type of data collected by untrained personnel would go into the state longitudinal databases to follow a student for life and could result in mislabeling of a child or life-altering consequences affecting college, career, military service or gun ownership.

Screening is also admitted even by experts to be terribly inaccurate, with false-positive rates of up to 84 percent, and can lead to over-diagnosis and over-medication. Dr. Mark Olfson, the scientific director of the TeenScreen mental screening program with that 84 percent false positive rate, admitted in July before the federal School Safety Commission (p. 38-39) that “the overall increase in youth psychotropic medication use has occurred among those with less severe or no impairment.” Even though Dr. Olfson did not admit it, that increase among those with less severe or no impairment is likely due to false positives from inaccurate screening like his TeenScreen instrument. During that same hearing, he also admitted some of the dangerous side effects of psychotropic medications in children and teens, such as “uncertainty over the long-term effects on the developing brain” and “weight gain, high cholesterol levels and increased risk of diabetes.”

What he did not mention was the documented risk of suicidal and violent ideation and behavior of these drugs as shown in his own research and in information available from an analysis of reports of violence to the Food and Drug Administration. (More research and links on this topic are available here and here.)  

Even worse, the follow-up school safety legislation proposed by the Florida Senate seeks to create a work group to develop a “Statewide Threat Assessment Database.” The type of data to be entered based on what criteria, who would enter it and who would have access to it are all yet to be determined. Consent and privacy issues related to this are based on the extremely weak Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) that was gutted in 2012 by the Obama administration.

Attorney and researcher Jane Robbins explained the problems with this concept when testifying against a similar bill in Georgia described by the Atlanta Journal Constitution:

“Do we want our children to be flagged by the government based on an algorithm when we don’t even know who created the algorithm or what factors go into it,” said Jane Robbins, an education lobbyist who testified on behalf of Concern Women for America. She said profiling based on demographic information could produce biased, inaccurate results that violate students’ privacy and free speech rights while creating documents that “could come back to haunt them forever.”

Texas has a whole slate of bills that pose grave risks to children’s health, freedom and privacy. Here are a few examples:

  • SB 10 follows up on expanded school psychiatric programs discussed here. According to a report by an activist present in a hearing about this bill, one psychiatrist wants to use the program to “be able to sample brain, blood and skin tissue in clinics.” Another psychiatrist in that same hearing admitted that “they have no brain scan, no blood test, and no other reliable test for diagnosing mental illness, so essentially, Texas children would be used as guinea pigs for the pharmaceutical industry. The medical, safety, ethical consent, scientific, and privacy concerns with this approach are legion. While it focuses on diagnosis and treatment by trained professionals, it includes diagnosis and treatment of “at-risk” students when even professionals admit it is hard to accurately diagnose teens and children due to rapid developmental changes, and there is no good definition of who is “at-risk.” It would likely also require screening by untrained personnel for referral into the program, and the word “consent” is not found in the bill.
  • HB 1069 relates to “consideration of the mental health of public school students in training requirements for certain school employees, curriculum requirements, counseling programs, educational programs, state and regional programs and services, and health care services for students and to mental health first aid program training and reporting regarding local mental health authority and school district personnel.” This will result in training of unqualified school personnel to screen students by admittedly subjective and inaccurate criteria and placement of material into curricula about which there is considerable debate regarding accuracy of diagnosis and efficacy of treatment even among professionals. It will also result in collection and potentially lifelong monitoring of sensitive mental health data.
  • HB 822 will monitor children for history of “adverse childhood experiences” as an excuse for government intervention in the lives of children. The bill seeks to “analyze data related to the causes and effects of adverse childhood experiences, including data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the United States Public Health Service” and then “evaluate prevention needs and gaps in services and support regarding awareness of, screening for, and treatment of adverse childhood experiences.” The plan is to gather all of this data and intervene via “home visits” and “early childhood programs.”  We have frequently discussed the harm and ineffectiveness of both of these kinds of programs.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle who use these nanny-state programs in either a sincere effort to do good or a sinister effort to expand government or perform corporate welfare need to hear the truth about the dangers and ineffectiveness of these programs. Children need hugs, not psychiatric drugs, and they need two loving parents, not a government program, to deal with their mental health issues.

Karen R. Effrem, MD

Dr. Karen Effrem and her husband have three children. She is trained as a pediatrician and serves as national education issues chairman for Eagle Forum and president of Education Liberty Watch.

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