Two Years Post-Newtown: What’s changed? What Needs to Change?

The Office of the Child Advocate for the State of Connecticut has issued a report outlining major factors contributing to the murder of children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut two years ago.  Although the Yale Child Study Center had evaluated the young man who committed that atrocity and recommended mental health services and special education services for him, the responses of both his mother and the special education staff at the school were found to be tragically inadequate to address the emotional issues that made him a pariah at school and resulted in his avoiding school completely.

The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Inc. (“COPAA”), a national organization with its eye on issues and initiatives that are important to our field, has issued a compelling statement using the findings in this report to advocate for additional funding for the federal mandate in IDEA.  We join COPAA in urging that you let your federal legislators know how critical it is to increase funding for special education services, which include services for emotional disabilities and related services. We add to their plea a request that you let both local and national lawmakers know of your support for increased funding of ALL public education, as we attempt to understand and avoid the conditions that give rise to such desperate violence.

Along with full funding for services under IDEA should come much-expanded funding and meaningful options for children with serious mental health disorders.  As many special education lawyers and advocates have also experienced, in recent years our caseloads have seen a major increase in the numbers of students afflicted with severely debilitating emotional challenges that prevent those students from being able to access an education.  The Kafkaesque maze of bureaucratic blind alleys, inconsistent and often contradictory criteria of eligibility for services, and battles between school districts and state agencies over which agency, if any, must provide the key day and often residential services and supports necessary to address the student’s needs is exhausting, incomprehensible and too often fruitless for parents who struggle, often literally, to save their children’s lives.   While underfunded government agencies battle over who, if anyone, should meet the needs of a student at risk, the student’s risk all too often becomes a tragic reality.

Exacerbating the difficulties families and their advocates face in securing meaningful services, there is an ever-decreasing supply of resources in the Commonwealth to support children in crisis, and even less to help children who need longer-term treatment.  See the heartfelt plea by the Parent/Professional Advocacy League (“PPAL”) for more immediate baseline funding to make more program beds available for kids with severe mental illness, in a year when funding has disappeared far earlier than usual.  Part of the reason for declining resources, we are finding, is that recent state-level administrative decisions have led to a combining of beds available for troubled children between two previously independently supported agencies – the Department of Children and Family Services (“DCF”) and the Department of Mental Health (“DMH”) – in single group homes or other facilities. Where resources were previously made available separately to DCF and DMH for kids in crisis – agencies whose clients’ needs and profiles are frequently incompatible to the degree that sharing residential space can be dangerous – the administrative decision to combine resources both reduces available beds and increases the risks to children already at risk. (Please note that we do applaud efforts by state agencies to work together for the good of children, but in this case we feel that the combining of beds works against the interests of children in need.)

I would add to COPAA’s and PPAL’s statements an additional plea:  A society that makes the means of lethal violence so easy to acquire is making a tragic choice. As difficult as it may be to stand up to the knee-jerk absolutism and to ignore the carrots and sticks of national and local lobbyists for open access to weaponry, legislators need to find a way to stop the madness.  To me it is obvious that the imposition of intelligent restrictions on access to the means of such violence should be part of any efforts to reduce the numbers and magnitude of events like those at Newtown and Columbine.

Educate fully and with open hearts and hands; support and treat those who are severely troubled; reduce access to the means of violence against oneself or others.  Can we make this happen in this fractured political culture of ours?  At this Thanksgiving time, can we at least imagine such a thing?

Robert Crabtree is a partner in the Special Education & Disability Rights practice group at Kotin, Crabtree & Strong, LLP in Boston, Massachusetts.

3 thoughts on “Two Years Post-Newtown: What’s changed? What Needs to Change?

  1. Nice, Bob. It’s terrifying to think of how many children and adolescents who are in dire need of help are falling through the cracks as we speak. Tragically, even when there are resources available, often they aren’t used. The most disturbed teens often have troubled/stressed parents who aren’t able to secure the help needed. We need the funding and education to employ staff at every HS to determine who is most at risk and assertively link the most vulnerable with the services they need. At present, in my kids’ HS each school counselor has about 300 students to manage. And yes, the fact the most republicans won’t budge at all on reasonable gun control measures is both infuriating and tragic.

  2. Well, put, indeed. As a long time teacher educator, I have never heard the issues of school violence and special education linked in this way. It is as if all SPED students are simply “in need of services” and some other breed of people cause school violence leading to all sorts of ideas–some useful, some totally crazy–to make schools safe. The fact that Bob has linked the two here changes the conversation. Of course we need to get guns out of people’s hands–guns do kill people–and we need to be sure schools are prepared when violence happens, but we also need to provide the kind of comprehensive mental health services this piece describes. And finally we need to include this level of understanding of both SPED and school violence in the curriculum for future teachers.

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