KILLINGLY — The State Board of Education unanimously voted Wednesday to accept a recommendation ordering an inquiry into why the Killingly Board of Education had not made “reasonable provisions to implement the educational interests of the state of Connecticut” by declining to institute mental health and social-emotional learning programs for students.
The recommendation, by Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker, was prompted when 57 parents from the district brought a complaint to the State Board of Education in April after the district’s Board of Education rejected a proposal to have a School-Based Health Center at Killingly High School.
Russell-Tucker said in her recommendation that while many districts were struggling to meet the mental health needs of students in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic, what distinguished Killingly was their apparent “deliberate indifference” to the “significant and widespread mental health issues” its students were suffering.
“In Killingly, the district’s Administration recognized an urgent need to address the sharp increase in student mental health, social-emotional, and behavioral needs. This recognition was shared and supported by a substantial number of parents and community members,” Russell-Tucker wrote in the report. “Nonetheless, and despite repeated opportunities to implement interventions, the Killingly Board inexplicably failed and refused to do so.”
Attorney Deborah Stevenson read a statement from Killingly Board of Education Chair Normand Ferron calling on the State Board of Education to reject Commissioner Russell-Tucker’s report. Ferron said that the complaint never should have been brought to the State Board of Education because the Killingly parents did not file a complaint with the Killingly Board of Education. He added that the vote to reject a school-based healthcare center had been “lawful.”
“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,” Ferron said in the statement.
He also rejected the idea that the Board of Education had not done anything to address students’ mental health needs.
“In fact, the Killingly Board of Education has adopted several interventions to implement the educational interests of the state and to address the mental health needs of its students, and will continue to do so,” Ferron said in the statement. “As always, the Killingly Board of Education will continue to consider all opinions and guidance from the State Board of Education, the residents of Killingly and the Killingly students as it continues to make reasonable provisions to implement all educational interests of the state and to provide an equal educational opportunity for all students in a safe school setting.”
In December 2021, the Killingly district received a report from the Southeastern Regional Action Council detailing the results of a survey of 449 students in grades 7-12. The report found that 128 of the students withdrew from normal activities because of feelings of sadness or hopelessness, 82 of the students engaged in self-harm, and 66 of the students — nearly 15 percent — had made suicide plans.
According to the report, officers of the board of education reacted to the findings with skepticism, with the then-board chair questioning whether the students were being honest, and current chair Norm Ferron saying the number of students reporting having a suicide plan was “not that significant of a number.”
Two parents and a former Killingly student who appeared before the State Board of Education on Wednesday urged the Board to accept the commissioner’s report.
“On paper, what is happening in Killingly sounds distressing. I can assure you — experiencing it first hand, it is even more so,” said parent Christine Rosati Randall. “Testimony from students, staff, parents and mental health professionals have been completely ignored.”
Parent Kristine Cicchetti noted that the district had lost multiple social workers and counselors, and that the position of guidance department chair was still vacant.
“No one would have expected that our local board members would have rejected the free resources presented to them months ago,” said Cicchetti.
Mike McKeon, the attorney responsible for the investigation, told the State Board of Education that when he talked to some of the people who made the complaints, “the desperation was quite evident.”
While a School-Based Health Center is not required by law, a report from McKeon found that Killingly had not taken any other steps to provide additional mental health support for students, such as hiring additional mental health staff.
McKeon told the State Board of Education that the district administration was aware of the anxiety that students were facing in coming back to school after the COVID pandemic, and that the administration had brought this to the attention of the Board of Education. He said the administrators assumed the board would agree to a school-based health center after seeing the need for it.
“[The superintendent] consulted with the assistant superintendent. He consulted with building administrators, and it was stated in unambiguous terms that help was needed. The board didn’t see it that way,” said McKeon.
Killian Young, a student in Killingly High School from 2011-12, said that he had told the Killingly Board of Education in three different meetings about how he had attempted suicide multiple times.
“I was met with blank faces and claims I was lying about everything I went through,” Young told the State Board of Education. “I did not lie. Who would lie about these things?”
Young said he ultimately left Killingly Public Schools because of the anxiety he felt. He said he testified in front of the board to support the current students in Killingly.
“If I had gotten that help from [Killingly], I probably would not have attempted [suicide] as many times as I did,” he said.
McKeon’s report also noted that, in April 2021, the district indicated in its grant application for COVID relief funding that it intended to use some of the funds for a school-based health center in an effort to lower the district’s chronic absenteeism rates. The chronic absenteeism rate in the district nearly doubled from 2018-29 to 2021-22. Last year, over a quarter of the district’s students were considered chronically absent, including a third of the high school students. This is slightly higher than the state average.
The district has received over $4.6 million in federal COVID relief grants.
“Money is no object here. Killingly has the funds. They have millions of dollars, and they had earmarked at least some of those millions of dollars to bolster their social emotional interventions,” said McKeon.
McKeon told the board that one of Killingly’s objections to the idea of having a School-Based Mental Health Center was the idea that parents wouldn’t be aware of what counselors were discussing with their children. But McKeon said that parental consent was part of the plan from the beginning.
“Obviously it’s important that parents be directly involved in their children’s lives, and particularly if the children are going through a difficult time,” said McKeon. “At the same time, the evidence established that there was absolutely no basis for this objection. Consent was an integral part of the proposed school-based health center.”
McKeon’s investigatory report stated that the board had adopted “Rachel’s Challenge,” which he characterized as a program to combat school violence, and had hired five armed security guards. According to McKeon, Ferron had said that the guards would lessen student anxiety, which qualifies as a social-emotional intervention.
Killingly Superintendent Robert Angeli told CT Examiner in an email that the district needed time to review the State Department of Education’s position and “understand what the hearing process would entail.”
Ferron was not able to provide additional comment on the State Board of Education’s decision by the time of this article’s publication.
The State Board of Education will appoint a three-person panel to conduct a hearing. The panel will ultimately decide whether the district has “failed to implement the educational interests of the state,” at which point they could require the district to remedy the situation.
McKeon said that the state would also be willing to work with Killingly toward a solution rather than go to a hearing. He said this might be able to provide students with mental health services more quickly.
“The ball is really in Killingly’s court,” McKeon said. “If they choose not to pursue that option, then we are prepared to prosecute the case.”