What is the cost to society for failing our children? Is making our children go through metal detectors and lock-down drills the only way to protect them?
No it is not.
We have a system in place designed to support our children to contribute to learn, graduate, make friends, hold jobs, and fulfill the American dream. The law requires public schools to seek out, evaluate, identify and provide services to children with disabilities, including children with serious emotional disturbances.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), public schools are the front line. And, it makes sense. Schools see virtually all children on a day in and day out basis. Their obligation is not just academics, but education, including social, functional and adaptive skills to allow students to become contributing members of society.
We are civil rights attorneys who focus on safeguarding the rights of children with disabilities. While neither of us represented Adam Lanza, both of us have represented dozens of children who have equally disturbing presentations.
The Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate released its report on the Sandy Hook shooting last month. This report provided our first glimpse at Adam Lanza’s educational records. Indeed, Newtown’s lawyers went to court to prevent their release to the Office of the Child Advocate. What we saw was sickeningly familiar.
We saw that the Newtown Public Schools, in violation of state and federal law, refused to evaluate, refused to identify, and refused to provide services to Adam Lanza. We saw Newtown ignore evidence that he was a troubled, violent youth, who required intensive therapeutic support; instead Newtown pushed him through the system as quickly as possible. Adam Lanza’s needs went untreated. While we can never know whether appropriate intervention would have stopped the tragic events of December 2012, some treatment has to be better than none.
The Office of the Child Advocate traced the chronology in painful detail. The district ignored early indications that Lanza had significant social skills deficits and unusual behaviors as early as first grade. By second grade, only speech therapy was being provided. In fourth grade his emotional functioning was diverging markedly from his classmates, yet that year Newtown ended all services to Lanza.
Lanza transitioned from Sandy Hook Elementary School to Reed Intermediate School in 5th grade with no special education supports or accommodations. There, he fulfilled a class assignment by writing a book that detailed cannibalism and the murder of children. No psychiatric or psychological evaluation was undertaken, nor was Lanza referred back to a special education team to determine if services should be reinstituted.
In seventh grade Lanza transitioned to Newtown Middle School, where his dysfunction worsened to crisis levels. He showed extreme obsessive and compulsive behaviors, and his mother was being asked to come pick him up regularly due to panic attacks at school. Newtown did nothing.
When the district finally re-identified Lanza as eligible for special education, he was already a teenager. Still, the district ignored specific recommendations by Yale for behavioral support.
Adam Lanza was not home schooled. Rather, in eighth grade, Newtown Public Schools placed him on homebound education services, which is tutoring at home for two hours a day to a student who cannot attend school. Newtown continued this isolating homebound tutoring for the better part of a year, as Adam became more and more out of touch with reality and his community. We know now that even this limited tutoring was not delivered consistently.
The Office of the Child Advocate report makes plain that the Newtown Public Schools failed in its legal and educational obligations to Adam Lanza. It was not the teachers, some of whom sought more help for Lanza, and some of whom gave their lives to protect Lanza’s victims. And, while Newtown has been especially hostile to special education, the town is not unique. Many towns are fraught with voters who hate to spend money on education and do not think it makes sense to spend money on children with disabilities.
The IDEA’s mandate to seek out, evaluate, identify and service all children with disabilities must be met. Schools can build strong behavioral and social programs. They can provide training to parents to help them cope with dysregulated children. The State can insist that there exist strong therapeutic programs for children who need intensive services that cannot be delivered in a traditional school setting. And parents can become more aggressive in seeking services from schools.
Adam Lanza was surely not a typical child. But, Adam Lanza was not unique. Sadly, there are numerous children with disordered thinking who are unable to control their thoughts and impulses, and they are attending our public schools today. They need our help and our support, not just because it’s federally mandated; not just because it’s the right thing to do; but because we should never again have to experience such a tragedy, when it could have been avoided.
Andrew A. Feinstein of Mystic and Jennifer Laviano of Sherman are attorneys who represent Connecticut children with special needs.