Connecticut’s growing youth mental health crisis is drawing increased attention around the state and, in many places, is spurring action.
Lawmakers called it the “defining issue” of the 2022 legislative session, passing three wide-ranging measures expanding access to and boosting resources for children’s mental health.
Some communities have also taken their own steps to expand mental health services for children.
But when the small northeastern Connecticut community of Killingly was presented a proposal earlier this year for a grant-funded, school-based mental health center, the local board of education said no.
After the board voted 6-3 to reject the proposal on March 16, concerned parents and residents filed a complaint against the board on April 5. Three days later, the board chair, Janice Joly, resigned.
The state Department of Education is now investigating whether voting down 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 Generations Family Health Center to submit a proposal for a school-based mental center at Killingly High School. It would have 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-based health center in Putnam. They would have come in part-time, three days a week to start until volume built and full-time therapists became necessary.
Referrals could come from parents, the school nurse or an outside health care provider. Students could have also self-referred.
Generations would have billed insurance, but students wouldn’t have been charged outside of the insurance billing. And from first contact, “parental/guardian consent and involvement are initiated, and emphasized as crucial to successful treatment,” according to a presentation from Generations.
In the presentation, the health center also said that they would never charge Killingly Public Schools for services.
Why did Killingly students and teachers want it?
Killingly educators and students have been clamoring for help to address what they say is a burgeoning mental health crisis.
In a mental health nonprofit’s survey late last year of Killingly students from 7th to 12th grades, nearly 30% of the respondents reported that they’ve had thoughts about hurting themselves. And 14.7% have made suicide plans.
In meetings in March and April, several students told the local board that they need mental health care. The students said they suffered traumas 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 about students having anxiety attacks and needing to call 211 for mental health services for children as young as 8. Parents talked about their kids’ mental illnesses, suicide attempts and need for therapy. Students said they are hurting and don’t feel heard.
The interviews with dozens of people involved in the school district show a pattern: The kids are shouting for help, and they say the adults in charge haven’t given it to them.
Why do some people oppose the mental health center?
Conversations about the health center have been tinged by political rhetoric. Those opposed to it have had complaints more commonly raised by the political right: cancel culture, Hillary Clinton, abortion, gender identity.
Some board members have wondered if a mental health center would infringe on parents’ rights, and others wonder if schools are the best place for mental health care.
Democrat Lydia Rivera-Abrams, who voted against the center, said her vote hinged on her concern that children who don’t have individualized education plans won’t be able to 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’d also like to see more family therapy and parental involvement, she said. She proposed an alternative plan to the health center that would add new positions to the 2022-23 budget using the district’s non-lapsing account, intended for emergencies.
But others — like Norm Ferron, current board chair — said they were concerned that kids might get counseling about “controversial topics.”
“Basically, what is a stranger to the parents can be advising their child on any issue,” he said. “They might be giving them counseling directly opposed to the views of the parents.”
What is happening in Killingly is not unique. In communities across the country, conservative parents and board of education members have pushed back against school-based mental health supports such as social-emotional learning, saying they are a subversive way to sneak teachings on critical race theory and gender identity into public schools.
How has the state of Connecticut gotten involved?
On April 5, dozens of Killingly residents submitted a formal complaint to the state Department of Education, alleging that the board had “failed to fulfill the education interest of the State of Connecticut by failing to provide the minimum services and supports necessary to deal with the social, emotional and mental health needs of the students of Killingly High School.”
The educational interests of the state are described in Connecticut statute. They include, but aren’t limited to, that each child has an equal chance to get a “suitable program” of educational experiences, that each district finances educational programs at a reasonable level and that each district will provide the chance for students to 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 be able to learn.
On April 11, the state agreed to investigate the issue, which is unusual.
“You don’t see many of these happen,” said Eric Scoville, a Department of Education spokesman. “They only happen … when there’s a lot of evidence that is provided.”
What happens next?
On Aug. 8, the state summoned members of the Killingly Board of Education and the superintendent to answer more questions about whether the board’s rejection of the grant-funded mental health center violated the state’s educational interests.
In a letter sent to Killingly officials on Monday, the state Department of Education said “questions … have arisen” after an “exhaustive and time-sensitive” review of a number of issues raised in the April complaint from parents that the board initially responded to in May.
Among them: When Killingly applied for some federal grants, it said it planned to establish a “school-based health center” that would provide social and emotional support to students. The board later decided against creating a school-based health center, despite a $3.2 million federal grant. The Department of Education wants to know more about how and why the board made that decision.
The state also wants clarification on whether there’s sufficient funding for adding more staff to handle students’ mental health needs as an alternative to the health center. And the state questioned how many students the district had placed in out-of-district therapeutic programs “due to a determination that [the students’] needs warranted support beyond the capabilities of the District to provide.”
The state offered four dates in late August as possibilities for the meeting.
The newly hired attorney for the Killingly Board of Education late last week requested a postponement of the meeting so she can review documents. The complainants’ attorney has objected to the request, documents show.
After the investigation concludes, Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker will make a recommendation to the state Board of Education, either saying she doesn’t think there’s enough evidence to prove the allegation or recommending a remediation plan for the district to fix the problem, said Mike McKeon, Department of Education legal director, in a previous interview.
Gabby DeBenedictis contributed to this reporting.