Bill Would Let School Officials Give Students Mental Health Evaluations

State Rep. Jason Villalba, a Dallas Republican, has filed some, shall we say, rather intriguing bills during the 84th biennial Texas Legislature -- like the one that would make it a crime for bloggers and citizens to film law enforcement, and the one that would force parents to vaccinate their children, regardless of religious and philosophical stances -- but House Bill 985, might be his personal best, at least for this legislative session.

Villalba came up with the legislation, referred to as "Alanna's Law" in the bill, after a 2013 incident in Saginaw, a suburb of Dallas, where 17-year-old Tyler Holder allegedly raped and murdered 6-year-old Alanna Gallagher after repeatedly telling other students he fantasized about killing. Under current law, officials couldn't arrest Holder since he hadn't actually committed a crime, so that's the gruesome and understandable motivation for Villalba's bill. However, like Villalba's other attempts at legislating this session, the result ends up reading like something George Orwell would write a dystopian novel about.

If it ever makes it through the legislative process, HB 985 will give teachers and school officials the right to start screening students for mental health issues. According to this bill, if a teacher hears or is informed of a student making any statement implying that the student is considering hurting himself (or herself) or someone else the teacher will be required to report the suspicion in writing to the school counselor.

From there, things get really interesting. On the basis of that single written report he school counselor gets turned into a state-sanctioned psychological sleuth. The counselor will be allowed to "investigate the conduct or statement," talk with administrators and the informing teacher about the conduct or statement and "interview the student or any other person with knowledge about the conduct or statement."

As things stand now, teachers have to report any indication that a student might be in danger to school officials. But Villalba's bill will kick things up a notch so that if a student acts in a way that a teacher interprets as, well, creepy the teacher will be able to trigger an entire investigation that will allow the school counselor can talk to pretty much anybody about the student's mental health.

HB 985 doesn't stop there. Once the counselor is done sleuthing the entire matter can get kicked even further up the administrative food chain:

"A school counselor who concludes that a reasonable person would believe the student intends or is likely to commit sexual violence against another or intends or is likely to cause serious bodily injury to self or others shall inform the principal about the school counselor's conclusion."

If the principal decides to suspend the student, the principal will have to inform local law enforcement and the local mental health agency and, last on the list, the parent or guardian, all based on that initial teacher suspicion. The student's guardian will be required to "take the student to the nearest local mental health authority or a physician specializing in psychiatry to receive a mental health screening and a certificate of medical examination for mental illness ... that contains the examining physician's opinion that the student is not a danger to self or others."

Villalba's bill will make it a requirement that local law enforcement and local mental health officials get involved and it will allow schools to keep a student out of class pending a mental health evaluation. Maybe this proposed new order for things doesn't sound like that big a deal, but stop and consider the hormone-addled middle school and high school students and the oh-so-wise things that humans of this age say and do while their brains are still developing and then consider how such things could be misinterpreted. What could possibly go wrong?

We're still unclear why the current process isn't cutting it or why Villalba feels that parents should be forced to take their children to the closest mental health official if the school is sufficiently freaked out about their kid. We've called and emailed Villalba to get his take on HB 985 but haven't heard back.

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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray