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Opening Remarks of Andrew A. Feinstein at ConnCASE 2018 March Legal Conference Mental Health: Legal Implications for Educational Settings, Local and National Implications

I appreciate the opportunity to be included in this excellent panel. I commend Kathie Gabrielson for her work and creativity in putting this together.

Two trends have converged to make today’s topic timely and critical. First, we have seen a significant increase in the number of Connecticut students with anxiety, post-traumatic stress, school avoidance, and seriously maladaptive behavior. Second, just as our memories of Sandy Hook started to fade, Parkland happened and the national debate over school safety was retriggered.

Let’s bifurcate the school safety issue. The piece that has received the most attention is how do we stop angry young men (and they have all been men) from shooting up schools. One side insists on gun control while the other side wants police to be able to lock up anyone who someone else says may be a danger. I will not enter that debate here.

The other piece is really what our topic is all about. What can we do to prevent our children from becoming the angry young men who are inclined to produce mayhem? I have no magic solution to offer, but I will offer a few take-aways:

  1. Public schools have been made, largely by default, America’s first responder for children with mental health issues. I know that schools lack the mandate, the staff, the expertise, and the resources to do this job. Get over it: the job belongs to you.
  2. The State Department tells you to access community resources. Sure, go ahead. The fact of the matter is that community resources are underfunded, understaffed, episodic, short-term, and poor collaborators with the school system. Use them, but don’t expect community mental health centers to effectively deal with emotionally disturbed kids.
  3. Special education exists, in part, to provide services to kids with mental health issues.
  4. Academic failure is not the only gateway to special education. School districts should be inclusive in finding children with emotional disturbances eligible for special education services, even if those children are doing fine academically.
  5. Provide a fully panoply of services to children with emotional disturbances, focusing particularly on services that provide an emotional link to other children. School shooters are loners. Special education should aim explicitly on relationships.
  6. Read the Office of the Child Advocate Report on Sandy Hook. Newtown intentionally and aggressively pushed Adam Lanza and his family out of the school system. That should be an object lesson in what not to do.
  7. Do not expel or suspend students. Anger is fueled by exclusion. Keep the potentially dangerous student close and in touch. Of course, placing misbehaving kids in alternative programs may be necessary for the safety of everybody else in the building. But, don’t isolate or reject misbehaving kids.
  8. It is easy to identify the externalizers. It is far more difficult to hone in on the internalizers. Depression, anxiety, school-avoidance, refusal to be part of the social group: those all can be indicators of more serious issues. Frankly, I am far more concerned about possible violence from internalizers than from externalizers.
  9. One size does not fit all. A consequence-based reward system, strict ABA-based data, carefully tailored interventions may work for one child, but may well be exacerbating and provoking for another. My advice: don’t let the BCBAs run your schools.
  10. Irrational fear leads to irrational decision making. Lock-down drills, visible police officers, metal detectors, and the like all have a significant effect on the learning environment. As we make schools more safe environments, let’s all track the effect on all school children and make sure that the benefits of such security outweigh the costs.

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