As schools across the nation continue to grapple with ways to prevent active shooter situations, some West Texas districts already added a unique layer of protection to thwart these often deadly confrontations – the Telemedicine, Wellness, Intervention, Triage, and Referral (TWITR) Project.
The Texas Tech University Health Science Center created TWITR, a technologically-based program, to identify students at-risk for violence and get them the help they may need, and, in turn, prevent school shootings.
TWITR is not new, though. Texas Tech launched the project in 2014 following the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting two years earlier. However, it has been receiving newfound attention since the more recent Parkland, Florida, high school shooting that left 17 dead.
Dr. Billy Philips, MPH, Ph.D., Executive Vice President and Director for the F. Marie Hall Institute for Rural and Community Health at Texas Tech University Health Science Center, told the Texas Standard the project was designed to fill a gap in schools.
“We started this to help rural school districts that had shortages in their counselor corps and were located in small communities with few mental health resources,” said Phillips, who noted the purpose of TWITR was to identify troubled youth who were “imminently dangerous either to themselves or others.”
Today, 11 West Texas school districts in and around the Lubbock area use the program alongside campus police forces, guardian programs, and/or other safety protocols. Of the nearly 34,000 middle and high school students who have attended participating campuses since the TWITR Project began, 209 went through the program, 29 students were removed from school, 44 were placed in alternative education programs, and the remainder were referred to other specialists for counseling, according to KCBD.
Philips said: “If we can find those kids and engage in mental health services and get them treated that’s a better outcome than finding out we could have helped them after it’s too late.”
The TWITR Project website describes the virtual counseling program working as a two-way video chat that instantly connects a student with a child psychiatrist from Tech’s Health Science Center. A troubled student can get two telemedicine psychiatry sessions. Youths in need of additional services are treated through the Health Science Center’s Psychiatry Clinic.
Additionally, the program requires parents of students in the program to remain involved with their child and his or her progress every step of the way, said Philips. He said information about a TWITR student remains private.
The distinction between TWITR’s focus and that of more traditional behavioral health services is an emphasis on violence prevention rather than rehabilitation from behavioral health problems. Still, the program netted a 37 percent drop in discipline referrals for students who received services. The project covers a wide range of issues as well. This includes relationships, dating violence, bullying, depression/suicide, anxiety, and substance use/abuse.
Since the Parkland shooting, Philips said he has received countless phone calls from communities around the country that want to learn more about TWITR. “We have a standing list that’s growing,” he told the Standard. “We have a number of people who would like to replicate the program.”
The Texas Office of the Governor’s Criminal Justice Planning Development originally funded the project through a grant under former Governor Rick Perry. Philips says he hopes to secure permanent funding in the 2019 state legislative session so they can expand the project’s reach.
Follow Merrill Hope, a member of the original Breitbart Texas team, on Twitter.