By Alfredo Santana
PICO RIVERA — A countywide campaign for students to report early threats or bad behavior that may lead to violence or shootings at schools was launched by the county Department of Public Health and Supervisor Janice Hahn.
The program, christened the School Threat Assessment Response Team, or START, is composed of mental health professionals assigned to schools and police officers to answer messages posed by students who witness threats in person on or social media with the intent to hurt others or themselves.
START members would get phone calls or receive emails to assess the threat and determine the path of action for each situation.
With a tagline “If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t,” the educational campaign encourages students to dial 213- 739-5565 to report youth who may be wearing military clothes trying to intimidate others, or if someone speaks, texts or posts messages wanting to use weapons.
Students can also send a message to START@dph.lacounty.gov.
The START campaign also runs public service announcements and ads on social media sites like Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and Facebook featuring Mia Tretta, a student survivor of the 2019 shooting at Saugus High School.
In the video, Tretta describes what she witnessed moments after the shooting and how students should be empowered to stop school violence and report verbal and physical threats of violence to the trained START teams.
Tretta was wounded in the abdomen, and lost close friend Dominic Blackwell after they met in the quad while getting ready to head to their classrooms.
The Saugus High shooting resulted in two students being killed and three others wounded. The gunman also killed himself, using a .45 caliber semiautomatic ghost gun he assembled from a kit purchased online.
Tretta has become an activist against gun proliferation, and even visited the White House and spoke alongside President Joe Biden on the subject in April 2022.
Hahn said that the powerful video has been watched 72,000 times since it was released earlier this month.
“We know that young people who committed school violence often mention or discuss their plans beforehand, often with other students or on social media.,” said Hahn during a May 5 press conference at the El Rancho Youth Center in Pico Rivera.
“So we need to make sure that students who witness these early signs know about the START program, and know that they have trusted adults that they can call.”
Hahn said that if a student poses an immediate threat, friends and others should call 911 without hesitation,
Before unveiling START for students, efforts to identify signs of possible violence inside schools had only targeted teachers, administrators and support staff.
They also had included advertisement and training workshops.
Dr. Lisa Wong, director of the county’s Department of Mental Health, said the campaign is tailored to empower students to save lives of those bound to act violently, and for youth who would gain from early intervention and services.
“The START campaign hopes to help students recognize that when something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t,” Wong said.
More than 200 school campuses across the county will receive posters with the campaign and its lookout message.
The new campaign also encourages students to pay attention to other signs of concern such as paranoia, acting out of character, aggression, lack of hygiene and suicidal thoughts.
Nicolas Beliz, the lead physician assigned to the response team, said experts have noticed “very early warning signs” in many shootings before they unfolded.
“We do get a lot of referrals from professors, mainly because how [students are] acting in class or statements they’ve made. But a lot of times we have behavioral intervention teams on each campus which consist of student discipline,” psychologists and police, Beliz said.
In a related matter, more than 400 events are scheduled throughout the county as part of May Mental Health Awareness Month.
According to public information officer Chung So, more than $8.9 million in grants had been awarded to 110 local organizations to promote wellbeing, resilience and community connections with a wide range of activities from May through June.
Dubbed “Take Action for Mental Health L.A. County”, the program lists community fairs, art festivals, after-school programs, yoga, 5K runs or walk activities, mental health trainings and professional conferences.
“[The mental health department] recognizes the importance of listening to our stakeholders and partnering with our diverse communities to meet L.A. County residents where they are,” Wong said.
The breadth of Take Action for Mental Health campaign events exemplifies the collaboration “and the village it takes” to link communities with resources and activities to promote empathy, self-care and care for others, Wong added.