On April 6, 2022, the Hartford Courant published an article about Killingly student and parent pleas for a state investigation after the local school board rejected plans for a school-based mental health center
A group of more than 50 Killingly parents and residents are asking the state Department of Education to investigate the town’s school board after the body rejected a plan that would have created a mental health center at the high school amid an increase in related challenges among students.
The proposal for the center, which would have come at no additional cost to the district, was voted down 6-3 by the Killingly school board at a meeting in March despite vocal support from students and parents.
In a complaint filed Tuesday morning, community members argue the board is neglecting its duties to meet standards set by the state, including commitments to social and emotional health outlined in the state’s five-year strategic plan.
At a state Board of Education meeting Wednesday, Killingly students spoke to the pressing need for more services and their frustrations with being ignored, and openly doubted, by Killingly officials.
“There was a handful of students, including myself, who shared their stories, [and] it seems as if the [Killingly] Board of Education just didn’t hear,” said Julianna Morrissette, a senior at Killingly High.
“It feels like I’m speaking to a brick wall,” added Alyssah Yater, also a senior.
‘Please help us’
The health center proposal was developed in partnership between the Killingly High School administration and Generations Family Health Center, a medical clinic in Windham, and put before the school board for approval.
The school-based center was designed to give students ready and reliable access to licensed therapists, which would be available for emergency crisis response and long-term services in coordination with school nurses and counselors when necessary. Parents would have to consent, and services would be billed to the family’s insurance.
Proponents say the center is much needed, as students across the country continue to battle with mental health challenges that have been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nearly 15% of Killingly students admit to having made a suicide plan, according to a November survey of 477 students in grades 7 to 12 conducted by SERAC, a nonprofit focused on mental health in eastern Connecticut.
More than 28% reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more, and another 28.2% admitted to having thoughts of hurting themselves.
Jenelle Provencher, a parent and second-grade teacher in Killingly, said she’s seen their pain with her own eyes.
“I’ve seen 211 called on second-graders, and there was nothing I could do,” Provencher, holding back tears, told state board members Wednesday.
According to the complaint, the pressing need for services is also backed up by school data. There were 500 incidents where students had to leave class to receive immediate counseling in just the first half of the 2021-2022 school year, the complaint reads.
Visits to the school nurse for somatic complaints related to mental health are up 60%, and there’s been a 50% increase in school nurse visits for anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder over the last three years.
Community members say mental health services at Killingly schools are understaffed and overworked. A school psychologist position has been open for more than a year, and the district has been unable to fill vacancies for additional social workers.
They add that it’s difficult to access mental health services, or transportation to services, for many families in Killingly, a rural town in Windham County along the Rhode Island border with many low-income residents.
Parents now have to wait “weeks or months” to get appointments for mental health services, said Kristine Cicchetti, human resource assistant at Killingly Public Schools.
Doubts over need
In light of issues with access, Killingly was one of 11 towns recommended for a school-based health center in a state working group report published in late March.
Senate Bill 1, which state lawmakers passed out of committee in March, includes more than $21 million for increased or expanded school-based health centers including at Killingly.
The Killingly Public Schools administration laid out its plan in detail during a February school board meeting, and a member of the Putnam school board attended a meeting in March to tout the success of a similar school-based health center in his district.
But not all Killingly school board members viewed such a center as necessary, or within the responsibilities of the district.
Janice Joly, school board chair, questioned whether the students responding to the survey were telling the truth during a board meeting on March 16.
“How do you know they were honest responses? They were dealing with kids. They could have written anything. That’s what kids do,” Joly said.
Officials did not record a video of the meeting due to missing equipment, Superintendent Robert Angeli said. However, Joly’s comments — and subsequent gasps by meeting attendees — were captured in NBC Connecticut coverage.
The comments continue to resonate with students and parents.
“Personally, I feel as if [Joly’s] actions and words that night shows that she had no care in helping the students at Killingly High School,” Morrissette told state school board members Wednesday.
Joly did not respond to a request for comment before the time of publication.
Joly did write a letter to the editor published in the April 1 edition of the Killingly Villager, a weekly newspaper, where she described the group of community members who showed up to a board meeting to support the health center as an “angry mob.” Joly also referred to fellow board member Susan Lannon a “blatant liar,” and threatened to press charges against others for defamation.
Community members still haven’t received explanation from board members on why they voted to reject the center, Cicchetti said.
Christine Rosati Randall, whose 16-year-old son attends Killingly High School, fears that the issue of student mental health is being unduly politicized.
“This is not a political issue,” Rosati Randall told the Courant. “It doesn’t matter what party you are. This is about taking care of our kids.”
Rosati Randall said a school-based health center survey circulated by state Rep. Anne Dauphinais, a Killingly Republican, betrays misunderstandings about the services the proposed mental health center would provide.
The survey asks parents if they support schools “offering or administering vaccinations to minor students” or “counseling minor students on contraceptives, premarital sex, or abortion issues” without parental knowledge or consent.
These are not services a mental health center would provide, according to Melanie Wilde-Lane, director of the Connecticut Association of School Based Health Centers.
“Our enrollment process is an opt-in only,” Wilde-Lane said. Parental consent is required for patients under the age of 18, and decisions regarding contraceptives are determined by the school board.
Challenge for state
The 10-4b complaint, filed with the state Department of Education Tuesday morning, acts as a challenge to the state’s authority over local school boards when it comes to enforcing standards set by state officials.
The complaint argues the Killingly school board’s decision is in “direct conflict” with the state’s interests as outlined in the state Board of Education’s Five-Year Comprehensive Plan.
And though not explicitly codified in law, Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker has consistently emphasized the importance of social and emotional health for students.
Killingly community members are working with attorney Andrew Feinstein, of the Feinstein Education Law Group in Mystic.
Feinstein told the Courant that the state Department of Education typically takes a narrow view on 10-4b complaints, based on his review of similar complaints made over the past decade.
Russell-Tucker on Wednesday confirmed her department has received the complaint. It is now under review by Michael McKeon, the department’s director of legal and governmental affairs.
“The issue of children and staff social, emotional and behavioral well-being is so critical to education,” Russell-Tucker said. “We continue … to work to ensure that every school building in our state has the requisite support necessary, be it more staff, be it working in partnership, to make sure that we are addressing those needs because they’re critical to academic success, and just overall well being.”
This story has been updated to reflect the reason why the March 16 meeting was not recorded and uploaded, as per Connecticut open meetings law. The meeting minutes, which were not initially available, are now published online.
Seamus McAvoy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org