Bill targets mental health exams, school threats

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BRATTLEBORO -- A proposed state law addressing mental health examinations and school threats was spurred by a recent school security scare in Windham County, a local legislator said.

The bill allows police, in "emergency circumstances," to transport a person to a hospital for a mental health exam without first obtaining a warrant.

It also makes threatening a school or students a felony and mandates an "immediate examination" for someone accused of making such a threat.

State Rep. Mike Hebert, a Republican who represents Vernon and Guilford, said he knows some portions of the bill may be controversial or may need to be amended. But Hebert is hoping to start what he sees as an important conversation.

"It will be something that will take some study," Hebert said. "Certainly, a lot of people are going to weigh in on it, and they should."

In late January, schools throughout Windham County and in nearby New Hampshire towns temporarily implemented tighter security after officials said someone had made "nonspecific threats."

The circumstances of those threats remain unclear. But some answers may be forthcoming, as a judge -- acting on an appeal filed by the Reformer -- has ordered the release of documents related to an involuntary commitment hearing that was held on Jan. 25.

The bill introduced last week by Hebert and three other lawmakers is not necessarily designed to address the specifics of that case.

But Hebert said he became concerned when, after the local school incident, he was told that police officers often don't have authority to act quickly in cases involving the mentally ill.

"This would allow an officer to look at a situation and make a determination that, maybe it's in your best interest or for your personal safety to be examined," Hebert said.

He added that "it's really a safety issue."

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The bill says police and mental health professionals should be able to "transport a person to a designated hospital while an application for a warrant is pending." The legislation also would "make it a felony to threaten a school or students therein, and any person so doing would be deemed to have met the standard for an immediate examination."

The bill, though, has mental health applications that reach far beyond school threat situations.

The legislation applies to any "emergency circumstances where a certification by a physician is not available without serious and unreasonable delay, and when personal observation of the conduct of a person constitutes reasonable grounds to believe that the person is a person in need of treatment, and he or she presents an immediate risk of serious bodily injury to himself or herself or others if not restrained."

In that situation, police or mental health professionals should apply to a judge for a warrant mandating immediate examination, the bill says. But even before that warrant is approved, police or mental health professionals can take the person in question into "temporary custody" and transport him or her to "the nearest designated hospital."

Applying for a warrant gives police authority to "enter a residence or other premises where the person is reasonably believed to be located in order to apprehend and take the person into temporary custody," the proposed law says.

However, hospital staff should not start any examination prior to a warrant being issued "unless the head of the hospital or his or her designee deems it necessary for the safety of the person, hospital staff or public," the bill says.

And if the court does not find sufficient grounds for a warrant, the person must be released. The same is true if, after examination, a doctor "does not certify that the person is a person in need of treatment."

Hebert said he wants to ensure that the law, if approved, would not be abused. He wants additional training for police officers so that "they'd be able to make some sort of basic determination" about a person's mental health.

He hopes to get input on the bill from experts during legislative hearings.

"We understand that there are personal-liberty issues here," Hebert said. "There are a multitude of issues."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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