Seth Varin, right, sits with other Killingly residents after giving a public comment to support a free mental health clinic. "I believe you are missing out on a great opportunity to save lives," Varin said. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

The sides are entrenched in Killingly. A majority of the Board of Education is dead set against establishing a School Based Health Center (SBHC); a large number of parents, students, and school staff believe that bringing in a SBHC is the lowest-cost, most immediate, and most effective way to address the well-documented mental health crisis in Killingly schools. The State Department of Education is investigating whether the Killingly Board of Education is implementing the educational interest of the State, as guaranteed in the state constitution.

The issue goes much deeper than whether to bring a School Based Health Center into Killingly. Opponents of the SBHC have raised a number of concerns. The central objection appears to be the concern that school students should not be speaking to a mental health provider without the consent of the parents.

Andrew A. Feinstein

This objection is really not related to school based mental health services, but rather to Connecticut General Statutes section 19a-14c, which provides that a mental health professional can provide treatment to a minor without notice or consent by the parent if five conditions are met: (1) notice to the parent would cause the minor to reject treatment; (2) the treatment is clinically indicated; (3) failure to provide treatment would be harmful; (4) the minor has voluntarily and knowingly sought treatment; and (5) in the opinion of the provider, the minor is mature enough to participate in treatment. This law has been on the books since 1992. The law was amended in 2021 to allow for unlimited number of sessions and to provide notice to parents if the health care provider determines that such disclosure is necessary for the minor’s well-being.

The reason for this law is self-evident: kids have issues that they cannot discuss with their parents. Sometimes, those issues directly relate to their parents. Unless they can get treatment, those issues may burgeon into serious mental health issues with destructive effects both on the student and on the student’s peers, teachers and environment.

The new-found “parental rights” movement seeks to go in the opposite direction. The assertion that parents have the right to approve of the curriculum and services provided to students in school is rooted in a populist concern over government overreach. Proponents of parental rights worry that their students are being interrogated about their home life, are being told that it is okay to be homosexual or to transition genders, are being indoctrinated with a radical liberal ideology. To guard against this, numerous state legislatures have considered — and a number of states have passed — laws prohibiting governmental entities, including schools, from infringing “upon the fundamental rights of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, health care and mental health of a minor child” without justifiable cause.

This then, is the fundamental issue at stake in Killingly. Is the purpose of public education to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, leaving social values, morality, interpersonal relations, and emotional development to parents alone? Or is the purpose of public education to develop active citizens in a diverse democracy? In more fundamental terms, the issue is the perpetuation of a democratic civil society.

That is why the battle over the SBHC in Killingly is worth fighting. We should not be willing to give up the struggle for a heterogenous society in which we deal with each other as individuals, where we work out communal problems through discussion and compromise, where the weakest in society are helped to be contributing members, where people of color, immigrants, and individuals with disabilities are treated as fellow human beings.

Public schools in Connecticut need to continue to provide social, emotional, behavioral and mental health support to students to help achieve this sort of society. Schools need to provide social-emotional learning to teach values of inclusion, acceptance, kindness, friendship, self-awareness, and responsible decision-making. Students should certainly respect their parents, but they should learn the skills to be independent actors in society. The parental rights movement seeks to strip children of their right to develop as responsible individuals.

So, the quarrel over a school-based health center in Killingly is a skirmish in the larger war over whether America continues as a democratic civil society or becomes a land with a weak government in which individuals are left to their own resources and resources of their families for matters of health, education, welfare, and the like. I, for one, am unwilling to give up on America’s democratic experiment.

Andrew Feinstein is an attorney with the Feinstein Education Law Group.