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Texas Governor Lobbies for Statewide School Telehealth Program

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's 40-point plan to improve school safety includes a recommendation to expand an innovative telehealth program giving students access to mental health counselors.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- Texas Gov. Greg Abbott wants to expand an innovative school telehealth program across the state, giving at-risk students access to telemental health services before they pose a risk to themselves or others.

The proposed expansion of the Telemedicine Wellness, Intervention, Triage and Referral (TWITR) program at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, which now serves 10 school districts in and around Lubbock, is included in Abbott’s newly released 44-page, 40-point plan.

That plan also recommends reducing school exits, adding metal detectors, expanding a school marshal program that allows school staff to carry concealed firearms, and creating an alert system that’s tailored specifically to active-shooter situations.

In his plan, Abbott notes that the state’s Health and Human Services Commission recently issued a grant to expand the TWITR program to 12 school districts in and around Amarillo. He wants to expand training to another 10 school districts, and is asking to eventually set aside $20 million to make the program available in all schools.

The program was launched in 2012 in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre and the Aurora, Colo. theater shooting, and has been used by some 34,000 middle and high school students since.

“Since the TWITR Project’s launch, more than 400 students have been referred to the program, of which 200 students were screened for anxiety, depression, loneliness, isolation — and screened for whether they were prone to violence or violent thoughts,” Abbott notes in his report. “Those screenings led to psychiatric appointments and, sometimes, immediate hospitalizations and arrests for planning violent incidents like shootings. In four years, the program has resulted in 25 students being removed from school, 44 placed in alternative schools, and 38 admitted to a hospital.”

The program was thrust into the spotlight in April, during a Washington D.C. event targeting school safety in the wake of the April 14 massacre at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

“The good news with a program like this is, you can find those kids who are just about to blow,” TTUHSC President Tedd Mitchell said at that event, sponsored by Politico.

Since then, the nation has seen a handful of school shooting incidents, including the May 18 massacre of eight students and two teachers at Santa Fe High School, near San Antonio. That tragedy spurred Abbott to release his School and Firearm Safety Action Plan.

Abbott hinted at his plans for the program right after the Santa Fe school shooting, tweeting that he wants it to become a statewide resource.

His strategy would require legislative action at a time when lawmakers are on recess, but the governor has floated the idea of calling a special session to address some of the proposals.

Through the TWITR program, students are identified and screened for risk-based behaviors in schools, then provided two telemedicine psychiatry sessions if they meet the requirements; those needing further treatment are incorporated into the TTUHSC Psychiatry Clinic.

“The effectiveness of the project is also demonstrated by improvements in student outcomes, decreases in truancy referrals, and fewer discipline referrals in schools,” Abbott notes in his report. “A 37 percent reduction in truancy and discipline referrals has been seen for students receiving TWITR services.”

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