Tea Connecticut Board of Education on Wednesday unanimously voted to empanel an inquiry into the alleged inactions of the Killingly school board related to its reported failure – and accusations of outright indifference – in addressing the emotional and mental health needs of its students.
The decision came seven months after a petition was filed by the Concerned Residents/Parents of Killingly Students group accusing the Killingly board of failing to make “reasonable provisions to implement the educational interests” of the state.
That complaint was made soon after the Killingly board rejected its own superintendent’s proposal to introduce a grant-funded high school-based health center staffed with licensed therapists. The center plan aimed to address a spike in student mental health problems that included suicidal ideation and self-harm incidents.
State board finds reasonable cause after investigation
The state board’s finding of reasonable cause in the matter was set to be followed by the appointment of three board members to serve on an inquiry, or hearing, panel. Inquiry members will make a final determination on the matter and have the power to force remediation steps. No date was set for when the panel will begin its work.
The board’s decision was preceded by a recap of the state Department of Education’s investigation into the complaint laid out in a 32-page report previously approved by state education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker.
Attorney Michael McKeon, the department’s legal affairs director, spent months interviewing Killingly board leaders, district officials, complainants and others before making his recommendation to Russell-Tucker.
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McKeon at times on Wednesday seemed unable to conceal his frustration with the Killingly board. Despite a long-acknowledged need by the board for more student mental and behavioral health interventions, he said members ignored the problem and failed to seek out solutions.
McKeon acknowledged school districts across the state are all grappling with an uptick in such pandemic-exacerbated issues. But he said other boards recognized and tried to confront the issues, as did the members of the Killingly community, its students, district staff and administrators.
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“Everyone but six members of the Killingly Board of Education,” McKeon said, calling the board’s inaction tantamount to an “abdication.”
What happened to the school-based health center option?
On March 16, Republican Killingly board members Janice Joly (who’s since resigned), Norm Ferron – the board’s current chairman – Jennifer Hegedus, Kyle Napierata and Jason Muscara, along with Democrat Lydia Rivera Abrams, voted against allowing the Generations Family Health Center to operate a grant-funded center inside the town’s high school that would have offered behavior health services to students via licensed therapists.
The center proposal, introduced last year with the full support of Superintendent Robert Angeli – came the same year the troubling results of a mental health survey were presented to the board.
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A disturbing student mental health survey
The survey of 449 Killingly students, conducted by the Southeastern Regional Action Council, or SERAC, found 28% of responders reported thoughts of self-harm and 14.7% seriously considered attempting suicide.
Instead of acting on the survey results, McKeon said Joly and Ferron downplayed or outright dismissed them with Joly at one point accusing the students of being dishonest in their responses.
When Ferron – who questioned the survey’s statistical significance – was asked by McKeon in August to clarify his remarks, the answer seemed to stun the investigator.
“(Ferron) said he was just wondering how that compared to other districts,” McKeon said. “We’re not talking math scores here. We’re not talking literacy rates. We’re talking about children who have a suicide plan. I cannot fathom what relevance such a question would have.”
McKeon said the board previously recognized the link between socio-emotional supports and the ability of a district to provide a safe and productive school setting, something he said “does not exist in Killingly.”
He said that lack of practical support likely plays a role in the district’s high chronic absenteeism and suspension rates and poor test scores. And despite the crisis-level issues facing the district, the board “inexplicably” failed to act, a tactic McKeon described as “deliberate indifference.”
He said while the board had the right to reject the school-based health center, it has to date offered no viable alternatives, despite having millions in unspent federal pandemic-relief funds at its disposal.
With state prepared to prosecute, ‘the ball is in Killingly’s court’
State board members, recognizing the inquiry process is expected to be a time-consuming affair, asked if there were any interim actions that could be taken. McKeon said the state is still willing to work with the Killingly board to reach a solution.
“But the ball is really in Killingly’s court,” he said, adding the state is fully prepared to prosecute the matter.
Attorney Andrew Feinstein, who represents the complainants, said if the Killingly board opts to fight on, it could be months before any relief is ordered.
What did the lawyer for Killingly’s school board say?
During the public comment portion of the meeting, the Killingly board’s lawyer, Deborah Stevenson, read a statement on behalf of her clients asking the complaint be dismissed.
She called accusations of failure by the Killingly board “patently untrue” and said the members had adopted several intervention steps, though she provided no examples. The Killingly board’s statement described rejection of the center the result of a lawful vote.
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The majority of public commenters in the Hartford meeting room, including community members, former Killingly students and state educational and mental health group leaders, pleaded with the state board to approve the inquiry.
“Killingly students need your help,” said Christine Rosati Randall, a vocal supporter of the center proposal. “As distressing as this sounds on paper, experiencing it first-hand is even more so. If there is ever a case for the state Department of Education to step in, it is this one.”
John Penney can be reached at email@example.com or at (860) 857-6965.