Dr. Manny Alvarez: After Florida shooting, we must do something -- Students need mental health screenings

Here we are again.

Seventeen people are dead in a senseless act of violence perpetrated against our most vulnerable targets: our children. Americans are once again sending thoughts and prayers to all those affected as we mourn those lost.

But as is the case whenever mass shootings occur in this country, which is far too often, we haven’t even waited for the tears to dry before the mental health overhaul versus gun control debate comes up.

No matter which side of the coin you land on, there’s one thing I think we can all agree on. We must do something.

As the investigation into Nikolas Cruz, 19, who is accused of murdering 17 people Wednesday at a Florida high school unfolds, we begin to see a portrait of what officials are calling a troubled “loner.” By the accounts of many who knew him, Cruz showed alarming signs that something was amiss in the months and weeks leading up to the attack.

There is often a mental health component when it comes to school shootings. And I think the best place for the federal government to start looking to make a positive impact is at the school level.

Back in 2002, the Department of Education and the U.S. Secret Service completed a study called the Safe Schools Initiative. They looked at targeted violence in schools around the country from 1974 through 2000 and used their findings to develop “Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates.

The initiative currently has targeted grants that schools around the country can apply for to receive funding for training, resources and equipment meant to help reduce school violence.

That’s all well and good. But the Safe Schools Initiative clocked 37 incidents over a 26-year period, and times, they are a changin’. I think it’s time for the Department of Education to revisit its approach to safe schools and include mental health screening.

One idea would be for the federal agency to develop a set of standards in conjunction with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for the screening of high school students as part of students’ annual physicals prior to the start of the school year.

These screenings would be made possible through the creation of block grants that states would receive to distribute to public school districts to provide clinical support for at-risk students.

Once these standards are developed and distributed at the state level, there should be legislative support for the programs, as well as liability protection for the schools in the event of a national tragedy like we witnessed this week.

The states would then have school boards implement their plans according to their needs, but at the same time preserve the standards that have been established at the federal level.

With the dollars that the states receive for mental health support for schools, referral centers  would work closely with each school district to help ensure that the kids identified as having emotional distress issues could receive the appropriate help for their particular challenges.

Now, I know what everyone is going to say: “How are we going to pay for this?”

It would definitely take some reengineering of what’s in the federal budget, as well as making mental health screening and treatment a priority worth throwing federal dollars at.

I understand this suggestion doesn’t come without its caveats and intricacies that would need to be worked out, but not doing anything has allowed mass murder to become an epidemic in this country. And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather find the money to pay in dollars than in lives.

We must do something.