The official state hearing to determine whether the Killingly Board of Education is providing enough mental health resources for its students began Wednesday, marking a rare occurrence in Connecticut’s education system.
Wednesday marked the first of what’s scheduled to be a three-part hearing to determine whether the Killingly Board of Education is meeting the educational interests of the state. The small-town school board has faced a series of controversies and a state hearing over their rejection last year of a grant-funded mental health care center at the high school.
At the hearing Wednesday, officials from the school district detailed the resources they’ve provided over the last year to address student mental health. Tensions were high throughout the day-long session as local officials and their attorney questioned the need for the hearing and the state’s handling of the case, while state officials made it clear they thought the hearing was necessary.
Following the then-Republican-majority board’s decision in March 2022, Killingly residents filed what’s called a 10-4b complaint with the Connecticut Department of Education. These types of complaints don’t often get all the way to a hearing — they’re often mediated before a hearing occurs.
The local board had the chance to mediate with the state for several months, officials have said, but no solution has been reached. The board says they’ve implemented several measures, including signing a new contract for a school-based health center with Community Health Resources to offer therapy at school.
“I mean, suicidal ideation is always a concern, whether it be one student or 20 students,” said Kelly Martin, vice chair of the Killingly board. “So, immediately, I was concerned with that, especially post-COVID, that we had more children feeling unwell than ever.”
But the residents who filed the 10-4b complaint have said that it’s not clear that new contract is offering enough support and that the board waited too long to take action, faced with high numbers of students reporting depression, suicidal ideation and other mental health problems.
“For two years, the students in Killingly have not had the mental health services they deserve,” said Andrew Feinstein, attorney for the complainants. “And it seems to us that there ought to be some remedy for those two years of lack of services.”
In October 2022, the state issued a scathing investigative report on what it called “repeated failure and refusal to implement reasonable interventions to address its students’ clear mental health, social-emotional, and behavioral needs.”
Over the past two years, since the idea of the school-based health center was introduced, several board members and school staff have resigned or left the district. There have been protests and students have repeatedly spoken up at local and state meetings to say they need help.
Local board meetings have gotten tense, as did exchanges Wednesday. Many of the students who originally asked for more mental health support graduated without ever getting what they said they needed.
In last Tuesday’s municipal election, the school board flipped to Democratic control. Candidates and voters said the mental health center was a key issue in the election.
Deborah Stevenson, Killingly’s attorney, started her presentation Wednesday. She interviewed Martin, the local board’s vice chair, and Superintendent Susan Nash-Ditzel. Two more hearing days are scheduled for late November and mid-December.
After the hearings, the panel of three members of the state Board of Education will determine what, if any, further steps need to be taken. They can introduce a remediation plan and require the district to take certain steps to address the problem.
It’s not clear what the new local school board’s plans are for mental health care, although several have said they’d like to look at it further. Their first meeting is scheduled for the end of the year.
The three parties involved in Wednesday’s hearing — the state Department of Education, the Killingly board and the 10-4b complainants — disagreed on many of the basic points of the case.
Stevenson said at the start that she wasn’t clear on the reason for the hearing and that due process hadn’t been followed through the case. She wanted to offer a response to many of the claims in the state’s October report, she added.
“I’d like some clarification on why we’re here and what exactly we are presenting,” she said.
Mike McKeon, director of legal and governmental affairs, said the report and purpose of the meeting were clear.
“There’s something ironic about the fact that attorney Stevenson who has successfully delayed this hearing for 11 months … is now claiming ‘I don’t know what I’m here for,’” McKeon said. “I think it’s been made abundantly clear what the subject matter of this hearing is.
“It’s a failure to implement the educational interests of the state. That was the state Department of Education’s determination. That was our finding. Their failure, quite frankly, to respond at all to their students’ needs.”
Martin said one of the reasons the board waited was because a previous attorney had said not to do anything because if they did, it would be an admission of guilt. She told attorneys she could bring proof of that in writing, although it wasn’t entered into the record Wednesday.
Some of the details were also debated — whether Feinstein had made disparaging social media posts about the new mental health care contract, and whether McKeon had objected to Killingly bringing their attorney to an informal meeting. McKeon at one point reminded Martin that she was under oath, to which she said that she knew she was and could prove what she was saying.
Stevenson interviewed Martin for much of the morning. Martin said repeatedly that the board was not indifferent to the needs of students and responded to the need in the best way they knew.
They wanted more options than the one initially presented, she said. She added that the school has introduced new measures to help students with mental health needs including the contract with Community Health Resources, fully staffing school counselors and psychologists, and adding a director of mental health and wellness to the staff.
She originally voted in favor of the mental health center, she said. But when the majority went against it, she wanted to move on.
“I wanted to accept the majority vote and move on to bigger and better things,” she said. “I believe that everything happens for a reason. And I think that it did in this instance, because we were able to find CHR [Community Health Resources]. They’re doing an amazing job.”
Martin repeated previous concerns brought up by board members about parental rights.
Members have said they worried that therapists might treat kids without their parents’ consent. The early discussions about the center were punctuated with political rhetoric more commonly heard from the right about gender identity and abortion, among other topics.
Students and supporters of the health center say that sometimes kids should be offered the right to therapy without their parents’ permission, particularly for situations when a child’s problems might stem from home situations. Generations, the company that would have provided the services, also said in its plan that they do involve parents early in the process.
Martin said that for students who don’t want their parents to know they need mental health care, the school can refer them to counselors although they can’t meet with the school-based health center without their parents knowing.
Nash-Ditzel testified that she believed the need had decreased from the years immediately following the height of the pandemic, although she added that the data system had changed and wasn’t exactly comparable.
She also explained school policies for employees on suicide interventions and other school programs to help kids. They have a few tiers of care, she said.
These tiers can involve daily check-ins with students, lunchtime peer group meetings, academic interventions, therapy or regular meetings with counselors, she said.
Time ran out before Nash-Ditzel finished her testimony.
All three of the parties involved in the inquiry have said they want what’s best for students: a safe and supportive learning environment.
In a 2021 survey, Killingly students reported that they were struggling with many mental health issues. This coincided with national increases in the number of kids who reported more depression, anxiety, eating disorders and substance abuse problems, among other mental health issues.
State lawmakers have also shown that they’re focused on mental health care for kids and made the issue a centerpiece of the 2022 session.
Research has also tied poor mental health to chronic absenteeism.
Connecticut has put significant time and resources into programming to combat chronic absenteeism, which rose during and after the height of the pandemic.
For Julia Revellese, a former Killingly student, the fight with the school board has changed the way she views the world. She was a teenager still in high school when she started advocating for the health center.
“I thought ‘Oh this shouldn’t be an issue,’” she said. But since then, her view has changed.
“Now I know not all adults know exactly what kids need,” she said.
Revellese left the Killingly schools as a sophomore in favor of a school that offered therapeutic services on campus so she could get treatment for an anxiety disorder without having to leave school.
She missed less time in class, and her grades improved. Now, she’s in college and studying early childhood education.
“Now I’m not sure that the board is listening,” she said.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, help is available by calling 2-1-1 or 1-800-467-3135.