This story has been updated.
The state Department of Education has recommended that an official hearing in its case with the Killingly School District move forward next month, citing in part what a new report calls an “ongoing reluctance” from the local board to recognize the concerns over mental health needs of students.
The report released Wednesday follows a decision earlier this month by a three-person panel to deny the Killingly school board’s motion to dismiss the case.
In a filing to the state emailed Thursday to the Connecticut Mirror by Killing school board chair Norm Ferron, the board takes issue with the report and asks the panel to reject it.
The state’s inquiry was opened after an April 2022 10-4b complaint from Killingly residents claimed the local board had violated the educational interests of the state because of an alleged failure to provide mental health support to its students. The majority-Republican board had voted in March 2022 to deny a grant-funded mental health center at the high school.
The report released Wednesday noted education officials are not convinced the local board is addressing the concerns appropriately.
“In fact, there is nothing to suggest that the Killingly Board had experienced an epiphanic shift in its recent history of denial of, and indifference to, student mental-health needs and now sincerely recognized both its obligation to address student emotional needs and the entwinement of those needs with school attendance and academic success,” says the report from Mike McKeon, the Connecticut State Department of Education’s director of legal and governmental affairs.
The hearing is scheduled for Oct. 11.
McKeon compiled the report and recommendation at the request of members of a special panel appointed to determine if Killingly violated the educational interests of the state.
The report says that Killingly school board members’ reactions to the state inquiry, as well as its delayed reaction to students’ mental health needs and the implementation of some interventions “in an attempt to mollify” the state department of education shows that there needs to be an official hearing.
In its filing, the Killingly board said the state panel should reject McKeon’s report because it was two days late and because he filed a “position statement” rather than a “memorandum.”
“Attorney McKeon did not provide any specific facts, or any specific legal basis in that ‘Position Statement,’” the filing reads. “Therefore, attorney McKeon’s ‘Position Statement,’ on its face, is non-responsive to the hearing panel’s clear directive, and should be rejected on that basis.”
The statement also again outlines 14 initiatives and actions Killingly has undertaken to support student mental health, such as lunch gatherings of students called “lunch bunches,” hiring a director of mental health and the contract for a school-based health center. Their response to McKeon’s statement says he provided insufficient evidence to put the work they’d done into question.
The Killingly board also warned that it planned to file more motions before a hearing begins, which could mean further delays in a process that has already taken a year and a half. Meanwhile, many of the students who initially reported that they needed more mental health support have graduated.
In a statement, Andrew Feinstein, the attorney for the Killingly residents who filed the complaint, said the school board’s objections to McKeon’s recommendation were “frivolous.” He added that the allegations in the state’s report need to be substantiated at hearings.
“The one hopeful sign is that in both this filing and in the August 31 filing Killingly and CSDE list a variety of actions taken to support the mental health of students in Killingly,” Feinstein wrote. “The Concerned Parents/Residents believe that those actions are both overstated and wildly insufficient to deal with the mental health crisis among Killingly students.
“At least, however, the offering of those steps may move the dispute from the trivial procedural objections raised by Killingly to date to a discussion about what the educational interest of the State requires and what more the Killingly Board of Education needs to do to meet that educational interest.”
The local board’s original decision on the health center occurred in the midst of political rhetoric. Those opposed to the mental health center raised concerns more commonly heard from the political right: cancel culture, Hillary Clinton, abortion, gender identity. Some questioned whether schools are the best place for mental health care and raised concerns about parental rights.
Since then, several local board members have resigned, including a board chair. One board member was censured. Students and parents have held rallies in support of mental health initiatives and driven to Hartford to tell state officials about the problem. It’s caused tension in the town and at local meetings.
The state opened its official inquiry in November 2022, and the Killingly board has had the chance to mediate with the state ahead of the hearing.
At the hearing, the three-person panel can take action such as setting a time period for compliance.
Hearings of this type don’t occur often. 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.
At its meeting in early September, the board members decided to allow the Killingly residents who brought the complaint forward last year to be official parties to the case. This gives them the ability to file motions and intervene legally in the issue.
They also denied a January motion from Killingly’s school board to dismiss the case.
“The CSDE and the SBOE never should have accepted the complaint in the first place,” the local board’s statement reads. “In addition, the SBOE has no jurisdiction to conduct an inquiry or grant the relief requested when a vote on the health care center was a purely discretionary local matter.”
The Killingly board said in filings that it had implemented several initiatives to address the mental health need including providing training for staff on grief and loss, short-term counseling with certain groups of students, and signing a contract with Community Health Resources to operate a school-based health center in two of Killingly’s schools.
But the complainants said in a filing that the interventions listed “are not evident to the vast majority of parents and students in Killingly.”
The state’s most recent report says such concerns are “not without foundation.”
“While the CSDE acknowledges that these are laudable initiatives, and while it appreciates the ongoing communication and collaboration these Killingly administrators have maintained with CSDE staff, in light of the Killingly Board’s prior statements and actions, or rather inaction, the CSDE believes it is imperative to confirm that the actual implementation of these measures will be fully effectuated during the 2023-2024 school year,” the state Department of Education’s August status report says.
The new report says the board implemented Rachel’s Challenge, a program founded by the parents of one of the children killed in the Columbine shooting. It purports to teach anti-bullying through social emotional learning techniques during a workshop.
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 in a November meeting.
“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.”
Someone who witnessed board members talking told officials that the program was an attempt to mollify the state “and thereby blunt its investigation,” Wednesday’s report says.
The report also says that one Killingly board member said the investigation was “bogus,” and that board leadership characterized one of the state’s early reports on Killingly similarly.
“… The Killingly Board leadership reacted with truculence, claiming that despite its extensively documented findings and conclusions — most of which were predicated upon the district’s own submissions — the Report was without foundation, that its undersigned author [McKeon] had, in the words of the Killingly Board’s Vice Chair, ‘lied through his teeth,’ and that the State Board was overstepping its authority,” the report says.
The report also said the local board didn’t take meaningful action for six months while its attorney challenged the special panel’s jurisdiction and waited 18 months to sign a contract with a mental health provider even after a report noted about 66 of Killingly’s students at the time had made suicide plans.
That contract, the report points out, also has a clause that allows the local board to terminate the agreement at any time with or without cause with 30 days notice. The state’s report says this brings up concerns that the board wouldn’t maintain the clinics.
“As such, the CSDE cannot state with any certainty that the Killingly Board is implementing the educational interests of the State,” the report says.