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Report: Killingly ‘failed’ to address students’ mental health needs

Killingly School Board of Education chairperson Norm Ferron speaks during a BOE meeting April 11, 2022.
Mark Mirko
Connecticut Public
Killingly School Board of Education chairperson Norm Ferron speaks during a BOE meeting April 11, 2022.

The state Department of Education has recommended an inquiry at the Killingly School District after finding that there is “reasonable cause” to believe its board of education failed to implement the educational interests of the state when members voted down a proposal for a grant-funded mental health clinic at the town high school.

The 38-page report from the state “sets forth in great detail the Killingly Board’s repeated failure and refusal to implement reasonable interventions to address its students’ clear mental health, social-emotional, and behavioral needs,” the introduction reads.

The report details the state’s investigation into what happened at Killingly and the reported need for mental health care among students. The investigation follows a complaint that a group of parents filed in April.

“The CSDE’s investigation of the April 5, 2022, Section 10-4b complaint has determined that despite Killingly’s awareness of the extent and gravity of their students’ mental-health needs, the Killingly Board has failed and refused to implement any curative measures,” the report states. “In fact, the Board’s inaction has been so systemic and so prolonged that one could reasonably consider it to constitute an intentional refusal to address its students’ mental health needs.”

Board chair Norm Ferron did not address the contents of the report directly.

“My only comment at this time is to express disappointment at how, once again board members read this in the press instead of officially being notified beforehand,” Ferron said in an emailed statement to the CT Mirror. “I will have much more to say on this later.”

While the recommendation and report appear to validate many points in the complaint, one of the group’s organizers fears an inquiry will take more time, and the students at Killingly still don’t have the mental health services they need, despite close to a year of pleading with state and local officials. A survey about mental health first went to Killingly students late last year.

An inquiry is essentially a hearing before state board of education members. State law allows the board to order an inquiry or dismiss the complaint, according to the report.

The department is set to make its recommendation to the state Board of Education on Wednesday. The board will then vote on a final decision.

Town residents made a 10-4b complaint in April, although discussions over the mental health center began last winter. That type of complaint alleges that a district violated the educational interests of the state. In this case, complainants said the state didn’t provide minimum supports for students.

“I’m looking at this through the lens of an adult. I cannot imagine what it must be like to be an adolescent watching this unfold,” said Christine Rosati Randall, one of the complainants.

“It was the Killingly Board of Education’s own words, actions and inactions that led to that recommendation,” Rosati Randall said. “It’s been difficult to go through this process and watch the students, the parents, the staff plead for this service which is at no cost to the district just to be dismissed.”

The local board voted in March to reject the school-based mental health center, some members citing concerns about notifying parents about care. But the language in the battle has been swirled with politics, including many Republican talking points about abortion, gender identity and angry mobs.

Since then, the board has rejected continued requests from parents, students and staff to reconsider its decision and voted down proposals from fellow board members to vote again on the health center.

All this came as a national crisis surrounding youth mental health has emerged. Following shutdowns during the early part of the pandemic, more students were reporting mental health challenges including depression and anxiety.

A survey of Killingly students found that 66 students — or about 14.7% — of those surveyed reported that they had seriously considered suicide. When the numbers were reported to the board, the chair, who has since resigned, questioned whether the students were telling the truth.

Ferron, then the vice chair and now chair of the board, said he thought it was “not that big” of a number, according to the original complaint to the state.

“The fact that approximately 66 students admitted to seriously considering suicide is extremely alarming, but equally so is the fact that when confronted with these numbers, the Killingly Board leadership dismissed them out of hand, particularly given the statutory mandate that the school board provide ‘a safe school setting,'” the state’s recommendation says.

The board has discussed other ways to improve school safety and possible alternatives to a mental health center. Members voted to approve armed guards at the schools and toimplement Rachel’s Challenge, a program founded by the parents of one of the children killed in the Columbine shooting.

Rachel’s Challenge was brought up in meetings as an alternative to the health center. It purports to teach anti-bullying through social emotional learning techniques during a workshop.

The district’s applications for federal money through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief and American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds mentioned the implementation of a school-based health center. The state pointed to that application and subsequent failure to provide the health center as another problem.

“In addition to the failure to implement the educational interests of the state as they pertain to student mental health and, consequently, safety, Killingly’s inaction also adversely affected more traditional indicia of the state’s educational interests,” the report says.

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