The Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate has just released the results of its exhaustive study of the December 2012 horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which left 20 children and six educators murdered along with the shooter and his mother. While the report recognizes the “ubiquitous” presence of guns as a causal factor, it carefully states that it is not assigning blame on any one individual or institution in its review. Additionally, the report stresses that individuals with autism or such mental health issues as OCD and crippling anxiety, all diagnoses which Adam Lanza possessed, do not inherently become mass murderers. When these conditions go untreated, however, they can still be destructive to the individual, the family, and the community. The report is a sad, lengthy treatise depicting numerous lost opportunities and failures to communicate and coordinate care among the school system, parents, pediatrician, community psychiatrist, emergency room, and ultimately the Yale Child Study Center, which raised an urgent alarm about Adam Lanza’s deteriorating mental health—an alarm that went unanswered and unconsidered in Adam’s subsequent IEPs. The school district was overly focused on meeting Adam’s perceived curricular needs and not his urgent mental health needs. Though the Child Advocate report clearly states that “no direct line of causation can be drawn” from the lapses and the ultimate mass murder, lessons clearly must be learned from this tragedy.
COPAA, the Council of Parents, Attorneys and Advocates, which is a professional organization of special education advocates, blames the tragedy in part on the failure of the Newtown Public Schools to appropriately evaluate Adam Lanza as a student in all areas of need and then provide appropriate social, emotional, and developmental interventions. As described by the Office of the Child Advocate, Adam's IEP's ignored his sensory, language, social, and emotional needs. The decision to provide a home-bound placement, with little supervision, was deemed non-therapeutic and only served to further isolate and perpetuate Adam's difficulties. Additionally, the school district’s failure, along with that of private medical and mental health providers, to provide training and counselling to the family led to denial and stuningly poor decision-making, particularly on the part of the mother. COPAA recognizes, as does the Child Advocate report, that parents of children with special needs may be under tremendous stress, both emotionally and financially, as they struggle to navigate and find mental health services for their children. As described in previous blogs, obtaining such services can be agonizingly difficult for families. To this end, COPAA stresses the need for school districts to adhere to the IDEA mandates to provide parental counselling and training in order to support these families, not increase their isolation.
The over emphasis on the narrow issue of academics to the near exclusion of social and emotional challenges is an incredibly common fact situation that arises in my practice. I have students who have overtly made homicidal threats that are minimized because "we are not seeing that here" or "that is a home based issue"...until tragically it is not. One of the take aways from this report is that district's need to move away from their narrow view of their responsibilies under IDEA.
We regularly receive phone calls from parents who are being told by their school districts that their child’s mental health issues are not the responsibility of the school. We are not suggesting that these children are future mass murderers, but we are suggesting that some of these children need help in order to function in the world. These parents often describe their children as being fragile or horrifically anxious. These children struggle to attend school if they attend at all. Frequently, these children carry autism spectrum diagnoses, possess few if any friends, and are almost universally bullied. But since they make “good grades,” the school districts may refuse to recognize that the child is struggling at all. Or perhaps the school perceives the child merely as a behavioral issue, refusing to recognize that the behavior is based on unmet developmental, social, or emotional needs, and is attempting to “boot the kid” out of school. Conversely, we have had to have hard conversations with some parents who are not being realistic about their child’s issues and are failing to recognize that the school district is making a sincere effort to address a child’s therapeutic needs by recommending a specialized day school or residential program for their child.
The Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate makes clear that despite the multitude of failures regarding the education and mental health treatment of Adam Lanza, it is ultimately Adam Lanza who is responsible for the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Yet, the report's numerous recommendations should be reviewed and considered by everyone: parents, school districts, and advocates as well as medical and mental health providers. Please take the time to review and reflect the report. We cannot afford to have a total systemic breakdown, such as the one which led to the tragedy of Sandy Hook.