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Killingly approves contract for mental health center in schools

The Killingly board of education meeting in April.
YEHYUN KIM / CTMIRROR.ORG
The Killingly board of education meeting in April 2022.

In the past year, Killingly has seen numerous protests, piles of legal paperwork and frequently tense meetings over the local board of education’s decision last year to turn down a grant-funded mental health clinic at the high school.

Students have come to the town hall to tell Killingly Board of Education members about their mental health struggles. They’ve spoken to local and national press. They’ve driven the roughly 47-mile-trip to Hartford to tell the Connecticut Board of Education that they need help.

A Killingly board member received an official censure. A board chair resigned. The state Board of Education launched an official inquiry, and the Department of Education issued a scathing report about local failures to provide appropriate care for students.

After all that, the Killingly Board of Education on Wednesday approved a new memorandum of understanding for a mental health provider to come into the schools.

The decision is a reversal of the vote last year that threw the town into turmoil.

The board voted to turn down a grant-funded mental health center despite outcry and surveys from students who said they were struggling. The board’s discussion included mentions of Hillary Clinton, abortion, parental rights and gender identity. Many board members said they feared the clinic could override parents’ decisions about their kids’ care.

The contract with the new provider, which will not charge the district for its services, is set to start May 1 and will end upon termination, although no date is set, according to board documents. Board members said Wednesday night that the providers plan to use the summer to start connecting with families ahead of the coming school year.

The major difference between this and the plan they voted down last year, board chair Norm Ferron said in an interview Wednesday, is that a requirement for parental consent is spelled out in the contract.

“We’re all happy with the agreement,” Ferron said. “It has parental agreement and we’re going to get mental health [care] for the high school and the intermediate school.”

State inquiry

In a statement, state Department of Education spokesman Eric Scoville said the agency plans to wait to ensure that services start before making a recommendation to withdraw the inquiry launched in November into whether the Killingly board’s original decision on the mental health clinic violated the educational interests of the state by failing to provide a safe and appropriate learning environment.

“We will wait to ensure the contract voted on by the Killingly Board of Education last night is effectuated and that the students get the support we believe is necessary and long overdue for both emotional health and academic success,” the statement says. “Should we be satisfied that positive movement is being made, we will make a recommendation to the State Board of Education that a hearing be withdrawn.”

The inquiry stems from a complaint filed in April 2022.

Such an inquiry could lead to a hearing during which the state board could compel the Killingly board to make changes, although the school has the option to settle with the state. These types of hearings are rare in Connecticut.

Andrew Feinstein, attorney for those that filed the complaint, sent a letter to state education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker on Thursday asking that rather than closing the case, the state put a temporary hold on the matter and continue to monitor the local board.

“The political antics of the Killingly Board of Education have deprived students in Killingly schools of critical mental health services for eighteen months,” Feinstein wrote in the letter.

He added that his clients weren’t convinced that services will actually start next school year. Christine Rosati Randall, one of the complainants, pointed out that it was long process of getting the mental health care into the school and that some staff had left because of tensions with the board.

“While I support moving forward with these services, I am concerned that during this past year, we lost valuable staff and our students were without the support they needed,” Rosati Randall said via text message to the CT Mirror. “My hope is that CHR’s services will be in place for the Killingly students as soon as possible.”

Deborah Stevenson, Killingly’s attorney for the inquiry, has filed various motions during the process claiming that the state didn’t follow proper procedure, that the complainants didn’t have grounds to file the complaint and that it was simply an attempt to overturn a local vote.

“The simple truth is that the Killingly Board of Education, as an independently functioning branch of municipal government, had, and has, an absolute constitutional right, as individually elected members of the Board, to vote their conscience on a discretionary matter of public policy, free from the risk of control, interference or intimidation by other branches of government, including from the State Department of Education and the State Board of Education,” one filing reads.

Stevenson has also filed motions requesting continuances in the hearing, which was initially planned for January but hasn’t occurred.

The requests were the main reason for the delay, Scoville said Thursday.

Parental rights

The Killingly Board of Education formed an ad hoc committee last year to look into the issue of providing mental health services to students. One provider decided they didn’t want to work in an environment that was too “political” and “hostile,” board members said at a January meeting. But members were able to work out a contract with Community Health Resources, Inc., a Windsor-based provider.

Community Health will start with one therapist at the schools three days per week, with the option to adjust the schedule as needed, according to the contract. The school will provide space, and Community Health won’t charge the district for services. They’ll bill students’ insurance.

It’s similar to the services Generations, the initial provider under the proposal turned down, would have offered, with some variations to the number of therapists.

But, the major sticking point — signed consent from parents for students to get therapy — is spelled out explicitly in the new contract.

Generations had told board members during presentations that they ask for parental consent early in the process, but members were concerned about a state law that allows providers to see minors without parental consent under certain circumstances, such as a crisis.

Board members on Wednesday night mentioned the parental consent provision as they expressed support for the new contract.

Board member Laura Dombkowski said Community Health’s first couple of intakes with students include the parents, meaning there’s “huge parental involvement.”

Parents’ rights have become a growing part of the culture wars waged across the country. State and national legislation has been proposed to establish parental bills of rights.

Last month, the House of Representatives passed a bill to codify these rights. The measure would notify parents that they can access curricula, library materials and inspect books, among other things.

Republicans have said it aims to strengthen the rights of parents. Democrats object, saying it would politicize the classroom and could harm LGBTQ students.

The issue surfaced early in the discussion on the mental health center. State Rep. Anne Dauphinais, R-Killingly, circulated a survey last year entitled “Public school services for minors without parental consent.”

The survey asked about school counseling on topics such as gender identity, abortion and premarital sex without parental knowledge or consent. In a statement at the time, Dauphinais reaffirmed support for parental rights.

“I have always stood for and believed in parental rights,” the statement read in part. “l sent this particular survey out to get the pulse of where those who participated in the survey stood.”

The survey was used early on to push back against the proposed mental health center.

But, Republican Killingly board members said Wednesday, those fears have been assuaged through presentations and the contract with Community Health. The process is more of an opt-in, and students won’t drop in for counseling without a prior process, Ferron said.

“The parent has to recognize the need and approve and authorize it,” he said.

All the board members who were present — five Republicans and one Democrat — voted in favor of the new contract. Democrat Susan Lannon was not present, and Chris Viens, the third Democrat who served on the board through the mental health debate, resigned earlier this month.

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