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State has more questions for Killingly Board of Education

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YEHYUN KIM / CTMIRROR.ORG
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The Killingly board of education meeting in April.

The state has summoned members of the Killingly Board of Education and the superintendent to answer a few more questions about whether the board’s rejection of a grant-funded mental health center for the high school violated the state’s educational interests.

In a letter sent to Killingly officials on Monday, the state Department of Education said “questions … have arisen” after an “exhaustive and time-sensitive” review of a number of issues raised in an April complaint from parents that the board initially responded to in May.

Among them: When Killingly applied for some federal grants, it said it planned to establish a “school-based health center” that would provide social and emotional support to students. The board later decided against creating a school-based health center, despite a $3.2 million federal grant. The Department of Education wants to know more about how and why the board made that decision.

For months, the town has been embroiled in a battle over the school-based health center.

Parents, teachers and students have spoken in favor of the center, citing a heightened need for mental health care in Killingly. The board voted against the center in March, saying they were concerned about a lack of parental consent for care, although the provider who would have run the center has said parental involvement is “emphasized as crucial to successful treatment.”

Board chair Norm Ferron said in a previous interview he was worried health center staff might talk to kids about “controversial topics.”

Parental rights have been a topic of growing support on the right. Parental rights support groups in schools across the country have pushed back against mental health programs such as social emotional learning, claiming they’re a Trojan horse for critical race theory.

Those against the health center in Killingly have repeatedly brought up complaints and phrases more commonly referenced by the right such as gender identity, cancel culture and abortion.

“The board’s actions and inactions were such gross negligence that it’s downright dangerous,” said Christine Rosati Randall, one of the complainants and an advocate for the health center. “We really shouldn’t be waiting any longer to intervene.”

Ferron said he had received the state’s document and planned to attend the hearing to answer questions, although the exact date has not been set.

“Beyond that I have no comment,” Ferron wrote in an emailed response to a CT Mirror request for comment.

Angeli said he thinks the district submitted documents that show the schools made “considerable effort to provide for the social-emotional needs of our students.” He added that the state’s letter doesn’t refute this but asks for clarification, and the district will work to address the questions.

“I recommended implementing a School-Based Health Center at Killingly High School to the Killingly Board of Education, earning the support of 3 members, as an additional means to assist our students in accessing behavioral health counseling not because we did not have supports already available,” Angeli wrote in an email to the CT Mirror.

The board’s 6-3 vote rejecting the health center predicated the resignation of its former chair and the April complaint.

The state Department of Education doesn’t often investigate complaints of this type. After the investigation concludes, Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker will make a recommendation to the state Board of Education, either saying she doesn’t think there’s enough evidence to prove the allegation or recommending a remediation plan for the district to fix the problem, said Mike McKeon, Department of Education legal director, in a previous interview.

The state board will make the final decision about what needs to be done.

The department’s follow-up meeting will be with current Killingly Board chair Ferron, Democrat board member Susan Lannon and Superintendent Robert Angeli. Ferron or Angeli may suggest other school administrators who could attend and provide relevant information, according to the letter.

The state offered four dates in late August as possibilities for the meeting.

Questions about ESSER

The state listed a couple of overarching topics staff wants to ask about in the August meeting.

The first is the Killingly Board’s applications for federal grants under ESSER II — the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief II Fund — as well as the American Rescue Plan ESSER. The school was awarded more than $3 million in American Rescue Plan ESSER alone, the letter says.

Congress initially established the ESSER funds in 2020 to help schools recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The funds have been released in a few tranches.

In its ESSER II application, the board said that a part of its strategy for addressing social emotional learning would be “the addition of a School-Based Health Center [that] will allow students to be provided social and emotional support and also through continued emphasis on mental health safety.”

The application also includes a mention of a school-based health center in its needs assessment, the letter says.

The board also referenced the center in its American Rescue Plan ESSER application, the letter says.

“Given subsequent events, the CSDE [Connecticut State Department of Education] is interested in understanding the sequence of events and the reasoning behind the Killingly Board having apparently declined to establish an SBHC after having originally represented in support of both its ESSER II and ARP ESSER grant applications that it intended to expend at least some of these funds on an SBHC,” the letter says.

The board did mention ESSER I spending to establish behavior analyst positions and social emotional learning specialist spots at the elementary school in a May 3 response to the state.

Health center alternatives

The state also asked Killingly to discuss alternatives to the school-based health center.

In its May 3 response, the Killingly board said that members had discussed alternatives to the health center such as peer mentoring programs and had asked the superintendent to share further information at the May 11 meeting.

But the complainants said it wasn’t included on the May 11 agenda. The agenda posted on the board’s website doesn’t include discussion of the alternatives as an item.

The May 11 minutes posted on the board’s website say that Angeli said, in response to public comment, that staff was still waiting on a response to a question about liability from the district’s legal counsel and researching alternatives. A motion by one of the Democrats on the board to add discussion and possible action on the health center failed.

The state asked for clarification on what happened at the meeting and further information on efforts to find alternatives.

“Furthermore, although the SBHC is not the singular focus of the CSDE’s investigation, but rather an element of the complaint, it would be helpful to understand whether the Killingly Board considers the question of the SBHC to be fully resolved,” the letter says.

The state also wants clarification on whether there’s sufficient funding for adding more staff to handle students’ mental health needs as an alternative to the health center. And the state questioned how many students the district had placed in out-of-district therapeutic programs “due to a determination that [the students’] needs warranted support beyond the capabilities of the District to provide.”

“As therapeutic programs generally — although, admittedly, not exclusively — work with students who have been deemed Emotionally Disabled, and given the Killingly Board’s admission that it lacked the capabilities to provide the necessary therapeutic supports to the out-placed students, has the Killingly Board placed all of its students who have been identified as Emotionally Disabled out of district?” the letter says.

Rosati Randall hopes to see the state take action soon because the lack of care is impacting kids’ ability to learn, she said.

“They’re not learning when they’re thinking about suicide,” she said. “They’re not learning when they’re in the throes of a panic attack. The adults that have the power to help these students need to do so, and they need to do it sooner rather than later.”

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