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.
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

A group of Killingly residents is asking the state to push forward with a hearing and consider putting the school district in receivership, which would place the system under state instead of local control, because of an ongoing lack of mental health support for students.

The group, called Concerned Residents/Parents of Killingly Students, made a 10-4b complaint over a year ago following the Killingly school board’s decision to turn down a grant-funded school-based health center that would have offered therapy to students. This type of complaint claims that the local district violated the educational interests of the state.

The state opened an official inquiry, but the Connecticut State Board of Education decided to put a hold on a hearing after the local board voted earlier this year to work with Community Health Resources, Inc., a Windsor-based provider.

In their Wednesday court filing, the residents claim that despite the vote, the board hasn’t produced a signed copy of the contract with Community Health Resources. They say that parents haven’t been contacted about the new resource and that services haven’t started.

The school has also been unable to fill several mental health positions. Three of the eight positions in the high school are vacant, and the middle school social worker post has been unfilled all year, according to the complainant’s filing.

On Friday, Killingly’s attorney sent a statement, the signed contract with Community Health Resources and documentation of efforts to recruit staff to the state.

Some of those recruitment efforts included pay increases for substitutes, more advertisements both in print and online, and organizing a job fair for paraprofessionals, among other actions.

The statement noted the local board had made efforts to help provide mental health services and that the request from the complainants didn’t reflect all the facts.

“We hope the public will begin to see that this drama is wholly unnecessary, and that it can, and should, end with the public’s knowledge of the truth, that the Killingly Board of Education is doing its due diligence in all ways possible, continues to have the best interest of the students and parents in mind, and will continue to do the best that they can for all of them at all times now, and in the future,” the statement states.

In an email sent Wednesday, the state education department had asked that Killingly provide a signed copy of the agreement with Community Health Resources and a written response to the “assertion that there has been a ‘significant exodus of school mental health staff over the past school year’ and that such exodus ‘has resulted in a situation where students have even less mental health support in the spring of 2023 than when we filed the complaint a year ago.’”

“Killingly’s failure to promptly provide this documentation will leave the CSDE with no other option but to push for the convening of the impartial hearing and consider other possible options,” the email from Connecticut Department of Education’s director of legal and governmental affairs Mike McKeon says.

The state also wanted to see a “written iteration of the steps it [the district] is taking to implement mental health provisions,” according to a statement from state education department spokesman Eric Scoville.

“Should Killingly fail to provide this information, the CSDE will have to reconsider seeking a stay and instead request that the hearing move forward promptly,” Scoville said. “The CSDE appreciates the attention given to this matter by all parties and looks forward to resolution of this matter.”

Last month, a Killingly student died by suicide, which the new filing from the complainants references. Students and parents have come to many board meetings to talk about mental health struggles.

“While there is no way to know whether effective mental health services in Killingly High School would have prevented this tragedy, the fact remains that numerous Killingly students have expressed suicidal thoughts and ideations,” the residents’ filing states.

The Killingly school board responded with a motion to dismiss, claiming that the residents don’t have standing in the case and asked that the complainants’ attorney, Andrew Feinstein, be sanctioned for filing the motion “knowingly without just cause or
authority.” 

“Make no mistake, unless these shenanigans end now, and with certainty, they surely will continue,” the motion to dismiss states. “In that case, there can be no truth, and no justice.”

The motion to dismiss also states that the original complaint was an attempt to overturn a vote taken by the board. The argument has been a common refrain from board members over the past year.

“[Feinstein] simply spews out claims, once again, aimed at raising the hackles and stirring the innermost emotions of the panel and the public, in a last ditch effort to bully the hearing panel into doing his bidding,” the motion states. “Apparently, fear mongering appeals to the emotions may be the only arrows in attorney Feinstein’s quiver. He certainly has not supported any of his allegations with fact or law.”

Feinstein said in a written statement that he’s focused on the students in Killingly.

“I think it is tragic that the taxpayers of Killingly have to pay for such foolishness as this filing,” Feinstein said. “I plan to focus on addressing the mental health needs of the students of Killingly and not engage in personal attacks.”

The state in November issued a scathing report saying that Killingly had failed to address students’ needs and supporting with documentation what the report called the board’s refusal to address needs.

“In fact, the Board’s inaction has been so systemic and so prolonged that one could reasonably consider it to constitute an intentional refusal to address its students’ mental health needs,” the 38-page report says.

The board hired attorney Deborah Stevenson to represent it in the state’s inquiry. She is the legal advisor to groups including the Connecticut Parental Rights Coalition, Connecticut Against Common Core and the Connecticut Homeschool Network, according to her website.

The Norwich Bulletin reported in March that the district had spent more than $84,000 on legal fees related to the complaint over several months.

The argument over mental health services in Killingly has been steeped in political rhetoric. Early discussions included concerns about abortion and gender identity. 

The majority-Republican board has continued to discuss parental rights, an issue that has gained national attention in recent months. Conservatives have leaned into arguments around parental rights in education — saying that parents should have more say in their kids’ education, including what books they read and what subjects are taught.

When the Killingly board voted to approve a contract with Community Health Resources, board chair Norm Ferron said that the biggest difference was that, under the agreement, no student would receive care without permission from their parents.

“We’re all happy with the agreement,” Ferron said after the vote in April. “It has parental agreement, and we’re going to get mental health [care] for the high school and the intermediate school.”

The discussion over mental health care and parental rights is coming at a time when more children and their parents are reporting heightened mental health concerns including anxiety, depression, eating disorders and substance abuse.

Recently, the school board opted not to renew Superintendent Robert Angeli’s contract for another year, and his performance review in part referenced issues surrounding the school-based health center.

Angeli was an early supporter of the school-based health center, and the controversy over the center was a point of concern in his annual review from the board.

Board members took issue with Angeli’s move to initially present them with only one contract for a school-based health center last year, saying “Leadership does not decide based on one option.”

“You allowed us to be judged based on your ineffectiveness to lead this issue, and you let us sink due to your wants and didn’t consider the other sides of the issue,” Angeli’s performance review states. “Your job is to represent all involved.”

His performance review also referenced conflict between Angeli and Stevenson, along with difficulty communicating with the board and conflict over the school’s controversial mascot.

Angeli responded to each of the board’s points, saying that he agreed that the board had been difficult to work with at times.

“Where you identify that I have been argumentative has resulted from situations when I explain that something you want to do, information that you want to have, or decisions you are about to make are not in the interest of students, would not have the intended outcome that you want, would create or continue controversy, or be violations of privacy laws,” he wrote.

He added that it was a “false narrative” to say that the board would have made a different decision if it had been presented with multiple options for school-based mental health care.

“That complaint was filed in part due to the Board’s decision not to contract with Generations, but more so due to Board member comments that were found to be dismissive of the substantial need in our schools to augment our support system for students,” Angeli said in his statement.

Reached by email, Angeli declined to comment further.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, help is available by calling 2-1-1 or 1-800-467-3135.

Ginny is CT Mirror's children's issues and housing reporter and a Report for America corps member. She covers a variety of topics ranging from child welfare to affordable housing and zoning. Ginny grew up in Arkansas and graduated from the University of Arkansas' Lemke School of Journalism in 2017. She began her career at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette where she covered housing, homelessness, and juvenile justice on the investigations team. Along the way Ginny was awarded a 2019 Data Fellowship through the Annenberg Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California. She moved to Connecticut in 2021.