This story has been updated.
The Connecticut Board of Education on Wednesday voted unanimously to open an official inquiry into the Killingly school board, a rare move that could lead to the state compelling the town to provide mental health services for its students.
The inquiry stems from a 10-4b complaint filed by Killingly residents who claimed the local board violated the educational interests of the state when it rejected a grant-funded mental health clinic at the high school.
“It’s about time,” said Christine Rosati Randall, one of the complainants. “The students are finally being heard.”
Mike McKeon, the Connecticut Department of Education’s director of legal and governmental affairs, presented a scathing report on the Killingly Board of Education’s actions and inactions regarding mental health care for students.
“The department has determined that an appropriate learning environment and a safe school setting don’t exist at Killingly,” McKeon said.
The hearing will be conducted before a panel of three state board members. The district has an opportunity to reach a settlement ahead of the hearing, McKeon said in an interview.
No 10-4b complaint has led to an official inquiry since at least 1990 when the state board held a hearing with the New Haven Board of Education for failure to comply with a minimum expenditure requirement.
After the inquiry, which hasn’t been scheduled yet, the state can take action such as setting a time period for compliance.
Since the March vote against the mental health center, the Killingly board has repeatedly rejected pushes to vote again, although a survey shows that many students in Killingly are struggling.
“This board refused to take any action,” McKeon told state board members. “We’re not talking about inability here, we’re not talking about impossibility, we’re not talking about to even surrender.
“We’re talking refusal, we’re talking abdication.”
In a public statement read by the Killingly board’s attorney, board chair Norm Ferron disputed that characterization. The statement said the Killingly board has adopted interventions to address the mental health needs of students and that the residents “never filed a complaint [with the Killingly board], per se,” so the state shouldn’t have taken up the complaint.
Residents have spoken to the board many times at public meetings.
“The Killingly Board respectfully suggests that the State Board should not be used in this fashion to ‘force corrective action,’ in effect, to change a vote by a local board,” the statement reads.
Ferron said in an email that he plans to issue a press release Thursday in response to the state’s decision.
In a meeting the state requested in August to get more information about Killingly’s decision, Ferron told McKeon that initially the board took no action to provide mental health care for students at the advice of an attorney, who told them taking action would admit culpability with regards to the complaint, McKeon said Wednesday.
Later, the local board voted to hire armed guards at the schools and to implement an anti-bullying program called Rachel’s Challenge. Ferron told McKeon both moves were designed to help meet students’ social and emotional needs.
But many students found Rachel’s Challenge disturbing. The program was founded by the family of one of the students killed in the Columbine shooting and uses audio from the shooting, McKeon said.
“Students were not appropriately prepared for this, and they reacted quite terribly,” McKeon said. “Children started to weep, they were agitated, and they were even more frightened.”
Rosati Randall said her 16-year-old son has missed school seven times since the September presentation, saying he’s too stressed to go to school.
And 66 students reported in a survey that they’d seriously considered suicide. When students talked about these issues to the Killingly board, board members dismissed them. Ferron said the 14.7% of students who reported considering suicide was “not that big” of a number, according to the original complaint.
When pressed about this in his August conversation with McKeon, Ferron asked what those rates are like in other districts, McKeon said Wednesday.
“I cannot fathom what relevance such a question would have,” McKeon said, noting that the number references suicide, not literacy or math rates.
Cillian Young, a former Killingly student, said they had attempted suicide three times in the past and switched to a different school for the mental health care. Young has spoken to the Killingly board about their experience many times in recent months.
“I was met with blank faces and claims I was lying about everything I went through,” Young told the state board of education on Wednesday.
They added that, had they had care earlier at school, they might not have attempted suicide.
While the board voted to open the inquiry on Wednesday, Young and Julia Revellese, another former Killingly student who left for better access to mental health care, held hands.
And when the decision came down, Young leaned back in their chair and let out a low whistle of relief.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, help is available by calling 9-8-8 or 1-800-467-3135.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the last time the state board of education held a formal inquiry.