Why this CT town rejected a mental health center at its high school

Connecticut’s growing youth mental health crisis is increasingly gaining state attention and, in many places, spurring action.

Lawmakers called it a “defining issue” of the 2022 legislative session, passing three far-reaching measures that would expand access to and increase children’s mental health resources.

Some communities have also taken their own steps to expand mental health services for children.

But when the small community of Killingly in northeast Connecticut was presented with a proposal earlier this year for a grant-funded school mental health center, the local school board said no.

After the council voted 6-3 to reject the proposal on March 16, concerned parents and residents filed a lawsuit against the council on April 5. Three days later, board chair Janice Joly resigned.

The state Department of Education is currently investigating whether the rejection of the proposal violated the “educational interest of the state.”

Here’s what you need to know:

What was the proposed mental health center at Killingly High School?

Last year, the Killingly Board of Education asked the Generations Family Health Center to submit a proposal for a school-based psychiatric center at Killingly High School. He reportedly offered behavioral health services to students.

Generations, a Willimantic-based health care provider, planned to staff it with therapists who work at a nearby school health center in Putnam. They would have come part-time, three days a week to begin with until volume built and full-time therapists became necessary.

Referrals can come from parents, the school nurse, or an outside health care provider. The students could also have introduced themselves.

Generations would have charged for insurance, but students would not have been charged outside of insurance billing. And from the first contact, “parent/guardian consent and involvement is initiated and emphasized as crucial for successful treatment,” according to a presentation by Generations.

In the presentation, the health center also said it would never charge for Killingly Public Schools services.

Why did Killingly students and teachers want him?

Educators and murderous students have pleaded for help to deal with what they say is a burgeoning mental health crisis.

In a survey conducted by a mental health nonprofit late last year among Killingly students in grades 7-12, almost 30% of respondents said they had thought about wrong. And 14.7% have made suicide plans.

At meetings in March and April, several students told the local council they needed mental health care. The students said they suffered trauma before the pandemic, then spent the last two years isolated from their friends and living through a global pandemic.

In interviews with the CT Mirror, school staff told stories of students having anxiety attacks and having to call 211 for mental health services for children as young as 8 years old. Parents spoke about their children’s mental illnesses, suicide attempts and need for therapy. The students said they were in pain and felt unheard.

Interviews with dozens of people involved in the school district show a pattern: kids are screaming for help, and they say responsible adults haven’t given it to them.

Why do some people oppose the mental health center?

Conversations about the health center were tinged with political rhetoric. Those who oppose it have had complaints more frequently raised by the political right: cancel culture, Hillary Clinton, abortion, gender identity.

Some council members wondered if a mental health center would infringe on parents’ rights, and others questioned whether schools are the best place for mental health care.

Democrat Lydia Rivera-Abrams, who voted against the center, said her vote was based on her concern that children who do not have individual education plans may not get immediate help if they are in crisis. . She doesn’t want them to have to wait for appointments if they need help now, she said.

She would also like to see more family therapy and parental involvement, she said. She proposed an alternative plan at the health center that would add new positions to the 2022-23 budget using the district’s permanent account, earmarked for emergencies.

But others – such as Norm Ferron, current chairman of the board – said they were concerned that children were being given advice on ‘controversial matters’.

“Basically, what is foreign to parents can advise their child on any issue,” he said. “They might be giving them advice directly opposed to the views of parents.”

What is happening in Killingly is not unique. In communities across the country, conservative parents and school board members have pushed back against school-based mental health supports such as social-emotional learning, saying they are a subversive way to sneak in lessons on critical race theory and gender identity in public schools.

How did the State of Connecticut get involved?

On April 5, dozens of Killingly residents filed a formal complaint with the state Department of Education, alleging that the board had “failed to meet the educational interests of the State of Connecticut by not providing the minimum services and supports needed to deal with the crisis. social, emotional and mental health needs of students at Killingly High School.

The educational interests of the state are outlined in Connecticut law. They include, but are not limited to, that every child has an equal opportunity to obtain an “appropriate program” of educational experiences, that each district funds educational programs at a reasonable level, and that each district provides the opportunity for students interact with students and teachers from other racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds.

The complaint argues that students’ mental health needs must be met in order for them to learn.

On April 11, the state agreed to investigate the matter, which is unusual.

“You don’t see a lot of these happenings,” said Eric Scoville, a spokesman for the Department of Education. “They only happen… when there’s a lot of evidence provided.”

What happens next?

On August 8, the state summoned members of the Killingly Board of Education and the superintendent to answer further questions about whether the board’s rejection of the subsidized mental health center violated the educational interests of the State.

In a letter sent Monday to Killingly officials, the state Department of Education said “questions … have arisen” after a “thorough and urgent” review of a number of issues raised in the complaint. Parents’ April letter to which the council had initially responded. in May.

Among them: When Killingly applied for federal grants, he said he planned to create a “school-based health center” that would provide social and emotional support to students. The board then decided not to create a school health center, despite a federal grant of $3.2 million. The Ministry of Education wants to know more about how and why the board made this decision.

The state also wants clarification on whether there is sufficient funding to add more staff to address student mental health needs as an alternative to the health center. And the state asked how many students the district had placed in out-of-district therapeutic programs “due to a determination that [the students’] needs justified support beyond the capacity of the district to provide. »

The state offered four dates in late August as meeting opportunities.

The newly hired attorney for the Killingly Board of Education late last week requested a postponement of the meeting so she could review the documents. The plaintiffs’ attorney opposed the request, documents show.

Once the investigation is complete, Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker will make a recommendation to the state Board of Education, either saying she does not believe there is enough evidence to prove the allegation, or recommending a remediation plan for the district to fix the problem, Mike said. McKeon, legal director for the Ministry of Education, in a previous interview.