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December 1, 2023

In hearing, CT asks if Killingly is addressing student mental health

GINNY MONK / CT MIRROR Killingly's attorney Deborah Stevenson argues a point during the second day of the state's 10-4b hearing with the local school board on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023. Killingly Board of Education Vice Chair Kelly Martin sits beside Stevenson.

An attorney for the state of Connecticut grilled the Killingly School District’s superintendent on Thursday about what immediate actions the local Board of Education took to address students’ mental health needs after a survey revealed that nearly 15% of 7th to 12th graders had considered suicide.

Mike McKeon, director of legal and governmental affairs for the Connecticut State Department of Education, questioned Killingly Superintendent Susan Nash-Ditzel about how students’ mental health needs had been addressed after the local board found out in early 2022 about the “alarming” report from a mental health nonprofit that showed students had self-harmed, considered suicide or felt sad or hopeless.

Most initiatives Nash-Ditzel pointed to weren’t implemented for students until several months after the survey came out, although she said that some of the budgetary decisions to support mental health were discussed earlier.

Deborah Stevenson, the attorney for Killingly, also questioned Nash-Ditzel and laid out the local district’s case to prove that it had fulfilled all state requirements and was meeting student needs to the best of its ability.

Thursday marked the second part of the 10-4b hearing to determine whether the Killingly school board has violated the educational interests of the state by providing insufficient mental health support for students. These types of hearings are uncommon in Connecticut because most complaints are resolved before a hearing occurs.

“This is a record, and it will live longer than us,” said Erik Clemons, a state board of education member who was appointed to the 10-4b panel. “And my hope is that we as adults, can behave in a way in the midst of discourse … that the children that are listening and reading and being ultimately impacted and affected by these conversations, that they would be proud of what they heard.”

The issues in Killingly have been ongoing for nearly two years. The original 10-4b complaint was filed in April 2022, following a March 2022 vote by the majority-Republican board to deny a grant-funded school based health center to offer therapy to kids at school.

That fall, the state published a scathing report recommending the hearing and finding cause to believe that the local board had failed to provide for the mental health needs of students.

In April 2023, board members approved a new contract for a school-based health center with a different provider. The new provider, Community Health Resources, requires parental consent before students can get therapy.

Nonprofit provider Generations Family Health Center — the original proposed provider — has said they also ask for parental consent and involvement early in the therapy process. But still, board members said they were concerned.

Some early comments and questions echoed political rhetoric more commonly heard from the right, about issues such as gender identity and abortion. Board members have also said they’re worried about violation of parental rights, an issue that Republicans have raised at the national level.

The state hearing will likely go longer than expected. Procedural questions have taken time both of the days, and attorneys have only questioned a couple of witnesses so far.

The panel plans to set a fourth date for the hearing, although that date is pending.

Politics

It’s also unclear how or whether newly elected board members taking office will affect the process. Voters flipped the school board to Democratic control during this month’s election, and those members have their first meeting scheduled for Dec. 13 — the same day as the third part of the hearing.

The issues with the mental health center were key in the election, candidates and voters said. It’s possible the new board will quickly take action and make changes needed to satisfy the state and settle the matter.

Andrew Feinstein, the attorney representing the complainants in the 10-4b complaint, raised that issue during Thursday’s hearing.

“There’s substantial indication, but not a guarantee, that there’s going to be a major change in policy,” Feinstein said. “And indeed, the election in many ways can be seen as a repudiation of what this existing board has done on this issue. And so it occurs to me that we may be wasting our time.”

McKeon said the state should move forward because the hearing is not about politics, but about figuring out whether the schools are implementing the educational interests of the state.

Stevenson repeated claims that the Killingly board’s due process rights were being violated and that the other parties were making the matter about politics.

“This is about a political vote that was taken — a lawful vote that was taken by the Killingly Board of Education in a lawfully held meeting,” Stevenson said. “And they have every right to take that vote.”

Hearing

Outside of procedural questions, Nash-Ditzel’s testimony took up the rest of the day. She was made superintendent at the start of this school year after her predecessor, a staunch supporter of the school-based health center, left the district.

Stevenson asked Nash-Ditzel questions to lay out the case that Killingly schools were providing enough help for students. 

Nash-Ditzel said she hadn’t had complaints that students’ needs weren’t being addressed and that she and the board hadn’t ignored student need. She added that the school climate had improved this year compared to immediately following the pandemic.

She pointed out that Killingly had hired a director of mental health for the district and filled school psychologist positions. School psychologists don’t typically offer therapy; they’re more involved with student assessments and special education.

Nash-Ditzel also said staff felt safer after the board approved the hiring of five armed security guards at the schools. Three have been hired, she said.

They’ve also made improvements to the chronic absenteeism rates through home visits and other programs, she added. 

They can always use more, but there have been aggressive efforts made to address mental health needs, she said.

Clemons agreed that the school had been making efforts.

“I think there’s a great distinction between needs being met and needs being addressed,” Clemons said. “Needs being met means there’s success, addressed means effort.”

Cross-examination
McKeon asked why there hadn’t been a follow-up survey to see how students are doing now, nearly two years after the initial survey. 

Nash-Ditzel said although there’s no set date, she expects an outside group to conduct another one soon. McKeon also wanted to know what immediate steps she’d taken to address the mental health needs. Nash-Ditzel replied that the staff had continued to work with students day-to-day.

“You’re the assistant superintendent of schools,” McKeon said, referring to her role before her promotion to superintendent. “You’re responsible for the well-being of the students. What, did you just shrug your shoulders and say ‘Well, whatever’?”

He also pointed out that Killingly had included mentions of a need for mental health care and the school-based health center in applications for federal pandemic relief funds as early as 2021, although the services with Community Health Resources didn’t start until the fall of 2023.

Nash-Ditzel said school staff had identified students most in need and connected them with Community Health Resources. The provider is in schools three days per week — two in the middle school and one in the high school.

There are 23 students actively in therapy and another 25 in the intake process, she said. The provider is trying to hire more staff to offer more services.

McKeon pointed out that the number in therapy is smaller than the number who said in the survey that they’d considered suicide, although some of those students may have graduated.

“So are they suddenly in a happier place, or is there still this significant amount of students out there who have some serious mental health needs?,” he asked.

Nash-Ditzel said because the survey was anonymous, she didn’t know. Also in a response to one of McKeon’s questions, she said she wouldn’t use the word “serious” to describe the current need. Things have improved since immediately after the pandemic, she said.

“I do think that there’s mental health needs, I think that exists in every district,” she said. “Do I think that we are addressing them … aggressively with intent? Yes, I do. Do I think we are in a better spot today than we were one year ago. than we were two years ago? Yes, I do.”

The next part of the hearing is scheduled for Dec. 13.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, help is available by calling 2-1-1 or 1-800-467-3135.

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