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In Killingly, tensions still high over school mental health center

The Killingly board of education meeting in April.
The Killingly board of education meeting in April.

It’s not clear whether having mental health care at his school would have helped Charlie Cournoyer. Maybe a professional could have identified the early signs of his mental illness and intervened.

Then again, maybe not.

What is perfectly clear to his mother, Judy Cournoyer, is that there’s a need in Killingly for more mental health resources. And if her son’s 2009 death can help other students get help, she wants to find a way to make it happen.

So despite fears that taking a stance would harm her business as a real estate agent, and a genuine disdain for politics, she went to a May 25 meeting of the Killingly Board of Education to tell her story during the time reserved for public comment.

As she spoke, she gently placed a black box containing her son’s ashes at her side.

But she wasn’t the only person with impassioned opinions about school-based mental health care at the meeting. Soon after she spoke, tensions boiled over, and the meeting devolved into a shouting match.

For months, the town has been embroiled in a battle over what would have been a grant-funded mental health clinic available at the high school. The majority-Republican board of education voted down the proposal in March.

Neither side shows signs of budging.

The conversations about the health center have been tinged by political rhetoric — some people characterizing their opponents as an angry mob, others raising concerns about issues of gender identity and abortion. Some board members have wondered if a mental health center would infringe on parents’ rights. A proposal by a Democratic board member to discuss the health center was voted down.

Meanwhile, the state has launched an investigation into whether the board is violating the educational interests of the state. State officials are reviewing information from attorneys, education commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker said Wednesday during a state board meeting.

The state’s decision might eventually have an impact on other school districts involved in similar debates. It is coming at a time when officials and advocates say there’s a nationwide mental health crisis, and conservative parents and officials are pushing back against school-based mental health supports such as social emotional learning.

But on May 25, Killingly residents were focused on their own town.

Charlie Cournoyer’s story

Judy Cournoyer spoke to the board before the meeting soured.

Cournoyer said in an interview after the meeting that she started noticing small changes in her son during his junior year of high school. Those small issues built into full-on episodes, and he was eventually diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.

She recalls the night of his death at the age of 29 in excruciating detail. He had been driving around in the midst of an episode, trying to find his way back home. They had been on the phone off and on, and eventually she and her husband went to look for him.

A photo of Charlie Cournoyer used in a brochure for a golf tournament in his honor. The tournament funds scholarships his parents established.
A photo of Charlie Cournoyer used in a brochure for a golf tournament in his honor. The tournament funds scholarships his parents established.

The car crash was caused by his exhaustion, his parents later learned. Judy Cournoyer remembers seeing a helicopter take off overhead at the scene of the crash, and that the hospital served them juice and crackers when they arrived.

She also recalls that her son had lost too much blood to be an organ donor, something he’d always wanted to do. So, if that small piece of good couldn’t come from his death, she wanted to find something else.

They launched a scholarship fund for students pursuing careers in mental health or environmental science, a subject Charlie had always been passionate about.

“You lose a son, what can you do?” she said. “You just try to do something good out of it.”

Her presence at the May board meeting was a piece of that doing “something good,” but although she’s dedicated to the cause, she left the building feeling like she hadn’t been heard by board members.

“I just felt like it fell on deaf ears,” Cournoyer said of her testimony. “They’ve already made up their minds.”

Getting personal

Cournoyer’s feelings echoed the sentiments of several others who have protested and spoken at public meetings in favor of the health center: the town is at a stalemate. Tensions are running high, and some of the arguments are getting personal.

“People are getting angrier because they have poured their hearts out, they’ve presented facts and data … at the end of the day, it’s just a big fat ‘no’ with no explanation,” said Christine Rosati Randall, an advocate for the school-based health center.

That was highlighted last Wednesday during a heated exchange between a few members of the public and Kelly Martin, the board of education’s recently appointed vice chair. Martin initially voted in favor of the health center but has since voted against proposals to bring the issue back up.

The meeting began to derail when Michelle Murphy, a Republican member of the town council, voiced concerns about the idea of a school-based health center. She’d gone back and forth on the issue, but she said she didn’t want therapists who hadn’t been vetted by parents to be talking with children.

She then read a list of what she said were news headlines about instances of school counselors molesting children.

Later during the public comment period, Nancy Grandelski, a local social worker and wife of another town council member, objected to Murphy’s comments.

“That kind of scare tactics and crazy talk is what is a problem in this town,” she said. “And it’s got to stop.”

At the end of the public comment period, Martin, the board’s vice chair, said Grandelski had been cruel.

“I happen to know Ms. Murphy personally, and I know on many occasions she has tried to have nice conversations with you,” Martin said to Grandelski. “She always agrees with both sides. She wants to be on both sides. And you’ve been nothing but cruel to her. And I just want to let you know. Don’t look at me like that, you know as well as I do.”

The meeting then erupted into chaos, with several members of the audience yelling. Grandelski’s husband defended his wife and Martin raised her voice at Grandelski, while chair Norm Ferron banged the gavel several times, telling people to sit down.

Martin apologized to fellow board members later in the meeting for losing her temper.

In an interview later, Grandelski said she thought it was inappropriate that a member of the board would personally call out a member of the public and said Murphy’s comments were insulting to therapists.

“When she was talking about all the counselors that have sexually molested students, I just thought that was pretty outrageous,” Grandelski said. “To me, it was just sort of insinuating that people at Killingly High School are going to do that to the children there.”

Reached by email, Murphy declined to comment for this story.

In an emailed comment Tuesday, Martin said she wanted to encourage respectful discussion, particularly for children in the audience at the meeting. Several students were present, some of whom spoke in favor of the mental health center, and some who were there to be recognized for their achievements on the robotics team.

“When mental health is the topic of conversation, speaking badly about other people and trying to humiliate someone who has a difference of opinion is counterproductive to the matter at hand,” Martin said in her statement. “It serves only to cause more strife and more division in the community.”

Members also voted to add Laura Dombkowski to the board of education. Dombkowski filled in the vacant position left by the resignation of Janice Joly, the former chair. Norm Ferron, the former vice chair, was appointed the new chair several weeks ago.

Dombkowski, a Republican, said in an interview that she was against the school health center “as it’s being presented.” But, she said, she was prepared to bear the burden that comes with the controversy surrounding it. She wanted to be more involved for her children, who are both students at Killingly schools.

“I’m ready,” she said. “I’m good.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, help is available by calling 2-1-1 or 1-800-467-3135.

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