Colorado Looks to Broaden Therapists’ Power to Prevent School Shootings

Proposed bill would permit professionals to alert authorities about possible dangers of violence, even if threat isn’t immediate

Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colo., was the site of a shooting in 2013 in which a student shot and killed a fellow student before killing himself.
Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colo., was the site of a shooting in 2013 in which a student shot and killed a fellow student before killing himself. PHOTO: CRAIG F. WALKER / THE DENVER POST/GETTY IMAGES

DENVER—In a state that has been battered by mass shootings, Colorado lawmakers are trying a new, focused approach to stopping bloodshed in schools.

A proposed bill would broaden the circumstances under which mental-health professionals can report a student that they believe poses a threat, an issue that has drawn increasing attention around the country

Colorado law requires mental-health workers to alert authorities if a patient expresses a specific, imminent threat, and mandates that they warn those being threatened.

The proposal would permit therapists to alert school administrators about a potentially dangerous student even if that danger isn’t immediate. It would apply to all public and private schools, as well as institutes of postsecondary education. Counselors who are school district employees are already permitted such latitude under federal law, but many schools contract with outside mental health workers to treat students, and some students are in private therapy as well, experts said.

The bill, which has bipartisan support, sailed through Colorado’s House of Representatives last month by a vote of 51-12. It now heads to the Senate, where it is expected to have the backing of members of both parties.

“My hope is that with this bill, we can stop any possible attack in a school that someone may know about ahead of time,” said state representative Mike Foote, a Democrat from Lafayette and one of the legislation’s sponsors. “It may not be an imminent threat, but it could certainly be a serious threat.”

Under the bill’s language, a therapist could report a patient of any age if the patient “exhibits behavior that, in the mental health professional’s reasonable judgment, creates a dangerous environment in a school that may jeopardize the safety or well-being of students, faculty, staff, parents, or the general public.”

Like doctors and nurses, mental-health professionals are barred from revealing patients’ confidential health information under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.

But according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, most states have laws either requiring or permitting mental-health professionals to disclose information about patients they believe are an immediate danger. The group said it was unaware of any other current state efforts similar to Colorado’s.

A 2014 Federal Bureau of Investigation study showed that between 2000 and 2013, about a quarter of active shooter incidents nationwide took place at schools.

The Colorado proposal follows a report by the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Northern Colorado this year on a 2013 incident in which an Arapahoe High School student, Karl Pierson, shot and killed a fellow student before killing himself. The report found that despite long-standing concerns over disturbing behavior exhibited by Mr. Pierson, who was seeing both a private therapist and school psychologist, information wasn’t always shared because of concerns over student privacy.

Mr. Foote said it is unclear whether his legislation would have directly affected that incident, as the report focused mainly on how school employees handled the situation. But he said the bill was aimed at ensuring that schools received vital information from mental health providers about troubled students who posed a danger.

Some mental-health-care providers in Colorado are uneasy about the proposed legislation.

“The main concern is that confidentiality is the backbone of successful therapy and treatment. You have to be able to trust the person you’re talking to,” said Moe Keller, vice president of public policy for the Colorado affiliate of Mental Health America, which advocates for expanded mental-health services.

The Colorado chapter is monitoring the bill and working with lawmakers to address the group’s concerns. Ms. Keller, a former state legislator and special education teacher, said she worried that if the legislation passed as currently written, troubled students would be less likely to seek mental-health treatment and more likely to withhold information from their counselor.

Colorado has a endured some of the worst mass shootings in the U.S., including a 1999 shooting at Columbine High School that left 13 victims dead and another at an Aurora, Colo. movie theater in 2012 that left 12 dead.

In recent years, Colorado lawmakers have sought to take on the issue by passing tougher gun control laws, which led to bitter political battles. This effort, though, appeared less divisive, and Mr. Foote said he was trying to find the “sweet spot between mental health and school safety.”

The state senate here will likely take up the legislation in the coming weeks.

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