Reply Brief Final
Concerned Residents/Parents of Killingly Students
c/o Attorney Andrew A. Feinstein
86 Denison Avenue
Mystic, Connecticut 06355
May 16, 2022
Attorney Michael P. McKeon
Director of Legal and Governmental Affairs
Connecticut State Department of Education
450 Columbus Boulevard
Hartford, Connecticut 06103
Reply Brief of Concerned Residents/Parents of Killingly Students
Dear Attorney McKeon:
Connecticut has a fundamental, constitutionally-based commitment to provide educational services to all children in the State. Local Boards of Education are empowered to determine how such services are to be provided in their districts, but the State Department of Education (SDE) is made responsible, under C.G.S. §10-4a, to ensure that each district affords its children with the level and type of educational services guaranteed by the State Constitution, article eighth, § 1.
The crux of the current complaint is whether providing adequate mental health services to students is a requirement of the educational interest of the State. The Complainants in this matter assert that it is; that ensuring the mental health, safety, and emotional regulation of students is an inherent and critical part of providing an appropriate education. The Killingly Board of Education (Board) has, both through statements of members of the Board and through its inaction, promoted the view that public education is limited to academic matters and that public schools have no business delving into the personal lives of students.
The Commissioner of Education has a choice. Dismissing the complaint would be an acceptance of the Killingly Board's truncated definition of the educational interest or the State. Investigating the complaint, and, if found valid, ordering Killingly to create a comprehensive system to address the social and emotional well-being of its students would assert the more comprehensive nature of the educational enterprise. Such a decision would not just impact Killingly but would send the word out throughout the State of what adequate public education requires.
II. Areas of Agreement
Complainants have numerous disagreements with the Board's submission to SDE. Prior to setting forth those disagreements, it is important to identify the numerous areas of agreement. In broad terms, areas of agreement include:
1. Connecticut is a State with strong local control over education. Notwithstanding the local flexibility provided, SDE has the obligation to ensure that the educational interest of the State, stemming from the State Constitution, is met. When a local school board fails to or is unable to implement the educational interests of the State, SDE is obliged to step in and order corrective action.
2. While C.G.S. §10-4a lists four specific educational interests of the State, the language is clear that the duty of SDE does not end with those four specific interests. The statute uses the language "but not be limited to". In other words, the four enumerated educational interests are examples: not a comprehensive list.
3. The first and fourth enumerated educational interests in C.G.S. §10-4a are directly relevant to this matter. They are "(1) each child shall have for the period prescribed in the general statutes equal opportunity to receive a suitable program of educational experiences;" and “(4) the mandates in the general statutes pertaining to education within the jurisdiction of the State Board of Education be implemented." Student mental health has a direct impact on a student's ability to receive a suitable program of educational experiences. It also is something about which numerous statutes have been enacted over the last few years. Simply put, the educational interest of the State requires efforts by local Board of Education to maintain the social and emotional wellbeing and the mental health of students within the district.
4. Killingly schools and, particularly, Killingly High School faces a serious crisis in student mental health. The Board attempts to paint the Killingly situation as nothing more than a local manifestation of a national trend. While there certainly has been a nationwide increase in students needing help, the statistics from Killingly indicate a far more extreme and far more dire situation, a situation which is directly impacting the educational interest of the students of Killingly. Indeed, the report of the Task Force pursuant to P.A. 21-35 identifies Killingly as a district especially in need of a school-based health service because the mental health needs in the town are especially extreme.
5. Superintendent Angeli and Assistant Superintendent Nash have taken steps to implement a program of social emotional learning in Killingly Public Schools (KPS) and have worked to fill vacant positions of student support providers but have not been successful in filling school psychologist positions. Because they knew their actions were inadequate to meet the severe need that exists in Killingly High School (KHS), the school administrators strongly supported the establishment of a school-based health center in Killingly. It was the Tea Party-dominated Board that shot down the proposal of Superintendent Angeli. It is not accurate to conflate the actions of the school administration with the actions of the Board. The complaint is not directed at the actions of the school administration; it is directed at the actions of the Killingly Board of Education.
6. A school-based health center (SBHC) is one of a number of possible ways to deal with the severe mental health crisis among students in Killingly. The Board has taken no actions this year to address the crisis. Generalized statements of policy are not actions to address the crisis. Adopting a budget with no additional money to provide mental health supports is not an action to address the crisis. Authorizing the Superintendent to fill vacancies is not an action to address the crisis. The Killingly Board of Education put forth an education budget to the Town Council with a $615,199.93 increase in funding. The Town Council slashed the increase and held education funding flat. At the Annual Town meeting on May 2, 2022, a KPS staff member and Killingly resident made a motion to add the money that was cut back to the education budget. A vote was taken by the eligible voters present. BOE members Norm Ferron, Lydia-Rivera Abrams, Kyle Napierata, & Jason Muscara, voted no and went against the very budget the BOE had put forth. These same Board members also voted no to the SBHC proposal on March 16, 2022.
7. The reasons given by school board members for voting down the SBHC proposal are directly relevant to the question of whether a local school board fails to or is unable to implement the educational interests of the State. The concerns recited by the Board in its filing were all directly addressed by Superintendent Angeli and others at various Board meetings. The real reasons for the six negative votes were fully expressed in public comments of Chairwoman Joly and others. Those reasons include the belief that public schools should not intervene in student mental health matters, that doing so interferes with parental rights, and that public schools should limit themselves to academic matters. The statements of Board members are consistent with nationwide attacks on social emotional learning.
III. Inaccuracies in Board Submission
There are numerous specific statements in the Board's submission that require correction or clarification. Among the most egregious are:
Page 5: “19 FTE Certified Professional (8.5 FTU support Professionals at KHS), 245.4 FTE combined above state average..."
The data is from the 2019-20 school year, not the 2021-22 school year.
As of May 13, 2022, Killingly had more than 33 certified openings, 7 of which were in special education. See,https://www.applitrack.com/killingly/onlineapp/
March 23, 2022, Board of Education Meeting during public comment, Tiffany O’Leary, Special Education teacher stated:
60 Students with the highest needs for specialized instruction were brought back to the district from outplacement without any additional certified staff to teach them. Was that decision made in the best interest of educating our students? According to the State of Connecticut strategic profile from 2009-2010, there were 351 students receiving special education services and 28 teachers. Throughout the district currently there are now over 500 students receiving services and 29.4 special education teachers - 150 more students and 1.4 additional teachers.
The Board was presented with a packet of information from the administration clearly laying out the need for psychologists, social workers, and special education teachers. This material was never considered by the Board.
Killingly Public Schools has over 30 fewer paraprofessionals this school year than last year. There are currently 34 openings for full and part time Paraprofessionals for the 22-23 school year: Paraprofessionals provide support to students and teachers to ensure safe classrooms and are often the go-to adults for many students. https://www.applitrack.com/killingly/onlineapp/default.aspx?Category=Student+Support+Services&subcategory=S%2EE%2E+Paraprofessional%2FInstructional+Assistant
Killingly does not pay comparable wages to paraprofessionals, leading to shortages. For the 2021-2022 school year, Killingly paraprofessionals start at $15.23 per hour. Neighboring school districts like Canterbury have pay ranges from $18.69-$21.97 based on experience. Neighboring school district of Putnam has pay ranges from $17.00-$19.00 with a $.50 increase effective July 1, 2022 at all levels. Many of Killingly’s seasoned paraprofessionals have left the district to seek employment in other districts for more money, better benefits and lower caseloads.
Killingly has only 1 FTE Psychologist for the entire district. Killingly used to have 4 school psychologists to allow for one in every building. The single psychologist remaining is overworked.
During the public comment period of each Board meeting this year, KPS staff have provided testimony to highlight the need within the District for the SBHC. On March 9, 2022, KEA Vice President Lisa Higgins, on behalf of the KEA executive board, read a letter in support of the SBHC. On May 11, 2022, KEA President Nicola Able provided testimony attesting to the staff shortages and the impact of those shortages on students and staff. The school administration presented the need for a school-based health center based on parent request and concerns before the pandemic. Mental health has historically been a concern in this community. Over the past several years, the administration requested additional counseling and social work personnel in budget decision packages. The Board has rejected these requests. Therefore, last spring the request was made by the high school principal to begin working on a partnership with a local provider to implement a school-based health center to address the rising demand for children’s mental health services by providing on-site, direct behavioral health services, with professional licensed providers.
Page 5: “SBHC won’t be able to share information with district about student needs, unless consent was granted for SBHC personnel to speak with school personnel.”
There has always been in place (and would also be in place with Generations) a form called “Release of Information”, that allows the school personnel and outside agencies to share information. The outside agency has parents sign off in order to allow sharing of information.
Nevertheless, disclosures by a student to a mental health provider are HIPPA protected health information. Concerns were also raised that mental health services would permit the school to learn confidential family matters. The need for explicit parental consent addresses this concern.
Page 5:“District is supplementing staff resources to outside agencies “
The district contracts for some services, but the contracts were short-term, and the staff vacancies remain.
Page 7-9: Social emotional learning
Social emotional learning initiatives are meant to support teachers and students in creating safe and positive learning environments. These types of programs such as RULER, restorative practices, peer mentoring or anti-hate speech training do not address trauma, anxiety or depression and do not provide one-to-one counseling.
Killingly was accepted into the State of CT DESSA program but failed to follow through to implement the tool. https://portal.ct.gov/SDE/Press-Room/Press-Releases/2021/CSDE-Announces-New-Partnership-to-Launch-Statewide-K12-Social-Emotional-Learning-Assessment-System.
The data references 2019-2020 training – high staff turnover in the district for the past two years has led to some new teachers not receiving the same SEL training.
The former Killingly Intermediate School Principal instituted a Restorative Room to provide a place for students to de-escalate and develop coping skills that align with Social-Emotional Learning. This effort was criticized by Board Vice Chair Kelly Martin at the April 27, 2022, BOE meeting, stating “the way that I understand it is if a kid does something wrong they’re sent to this room to get their feelings out….but it seems to me that when you go out to the real world, if you do something wrong at work you couldn’t go into a room and get your feelings out."
The paraprofessional that is currently working with the students in the Restorative Room is leaving the District at the end of this school year. This resource cannot be effectively managed without qualified staff to ensure student safety and development.
BOE member Jason Muscara stated he does not believe in restorative practices and stated that restorative practices led to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. See the April 27, 2022 BOE meeting recording at the 2:30 mark: Board of Education - Regular Meeting (Killingly Town Hall - Town Meeting Room) - 04/27/2022 | Live & On-Demand (nfhsnetwork.com)
Pages 8-9: “Individual student supports":
The percentage of Killingly students eligible for special education has increased from 15% to 18.6%. This is strong evidence of the extreme situation in Killingly. While some students are outplaced, those in the district are not receiving the proper support due to staff shortages. Killingly High School is allocated 7 special education teachers, but only had 4 on staff for most of the 2021-22 school year.
Killingly Public Schools currently has 7 vacancies for special education teachers for the 2022-23 school year.
Of course, not all students with suicidal or self-harm ideation are eligible for special education services or for protection under Section 504. The resources within KPS for students not eligible for special education of 504 are even more limited.
Page 8-9: District provides SEL resources online and community resource handouts to families
Providing a list of community providers does not mean families can get appointments as there are long waitlists, barriers for families due to transportation, and parents cannot take time off from work to take children to outside appointments.
Killingly policy 5141.5 states “it is recognized by the Board that suicide is a complex issue and that, while school staff members may recognize potentially suicidal youth, they cannot make a clinical assessment of risk and provide in-depth counseling but must refer the youth to an appropriate agency for such assessment and counseling."
The student survey presented to the BOE from SERAC showed that 28.2% (133 students) had thoughts of hurting themselves and 14.7% (70 students) stated they had thought about suicide (created a plan). The survey was completed by 477 students, in grades 7-12 out of 1,064 students which is a 45% response rate.
The Board policy makes clear that it lacks the staff and expertise to deal with these students. These statistics demonstrate that the need exists despite the Board's documented efforts to date.
The Board claims concerns about the cost of utilities for a SBHC. There are currently unoccupied rooms in Killingly High School. Killingly is already paying to heat and cool those rooms. At the February 9, 2022, Board meeting, Superintendent Angeli stated there would be no additional cost for custodial staff.
KHS currently houses Charter Oak Bank and EASTCONN Head Start with no liability issues. The BOE has not expressed the same concerns with housing these outside agencies. They do not pay rent and KPS covers lighting, cooling, custodial, etc.
Page 10: last paragraph-Working Group Report
Killingly was a recommended site and identified in the State report as a priority. The Working Group combined multiple databases and utilized the CDC Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) and Health Professional Shortages Areas (HPSA) to identify priority schools that presently do not have a school-based health center. As a result, 3 Killingly Public schools were identified. As noted in the School Based Health Center (SBHC) Expansion Working Group Final Report dated February 2022, each school’s town was reviewed to see if the school was located in a designated medical and/or mental Health Professional Shortage Area. HPSAs are designated by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) to identify areas which are determined to experience a shortage of healthcare professionals. There are both medical and mental health designations. Each school was then assigned a value of 1 if in a designated area, 0 if not in a designated area, and 0.5 if in a partially designated area. All three Killingly schools were determined to be in areas of the most acute shortage of mental health professionals.
Page 11: Board Meetings
March 9 & March 16 – The reason the Board held a special meeting on March 16, 2022, to “take action” was because SBHC supporters held a rally on March 9, 2022, with statewide news coverage. Despite numerous requests, the BOE did not have the SBHC proposal on the March 9, 2022, meeting agenda for discussion or action and had not taken action at any other previous meetings since it was first proposed in January 2022. https://resources.finalsite.net/images/v1646687831/killinglyschoolsorg/v9kyiwsflmzu0x3fsgq1/3-9-22REVISEDBOEMtgAgenda.pdf . The meeting minutes the Board references on March 16, 2022, are not inclusive or representative of all the discussions that took place as the Board “lost” the meeting video. On April 5, 2022, a FOIA complaint was filed with the State of CT regarding the missing video.
Continued Discussion on Students Mental Health Needs:
The alternatives proposed are not comparable. None of them provide the level of resources that are needed to meet the mental health crisis in Killingly schools. None provide for diagnosis or on-going therapy. And, indeed, the Board has taken no action to implement any of the alternatives.
Page 12: April 27th BOE meeting-the BOE directed the Superintendent to present additional information on BOTH the SBHC and alternatives at the May 11th BOE meeting
Patently false. The issue was not on the agenda of the May 11th Board of Education meeting. https://resources.finalsite.net/images/v1652125593/killinglyschoolsorg/gmtcvrdfd4ysieqpxcb8/May112022BoEMtgAgendawithattachments.pdf
No alternatives with a comparable level of services as those provided by the SBHC have been proposed or implemented.
Page 13: Board Judgment: Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-220 states specifically that “each local or regional board of education shall maintain good public elementary and secondary schools, implement the educational interests of the state, as defined in section 10-4a, and provide such other educational activities as in its judgment will best serve the interests of the school district” The Superintendent and Administration, in their judgment, feel the SBHC is the appropriate avenue to serve the best interest of the school district. The Board is not exercising judgment when it fails to address the severe mental health challenges faces by KPS students. Instead of exercising judgment, the Board is imposing its own extreme political views in a way that undermines the educational interest of the State. Consider the following:
The alternatives proposed include creating ten new positions with 1-year contracts and $5,000 sign-on bonuses. Such a plan cannot be funded under the flat budget approved by the Town Council.
Proposals for peer mediation and Rachel's challenge do not address the severe need for significant mental health interventions.
As stated by KPS Pupil Services Employee Tiffany O’Leary, “The Board repeatedly conflates “mental health” with “disability” and through their response to the complaint, imply that identifying students eligible for IEPs is somehow addressing the safety of students with mental health needs." Exhibit R.
The Board's response fails to report the many emails they received in support of the SBHC. The only time these emails were referenced in any response was on March 16, 2002, when Susan Lannon stated that the board had received 84 emails in support of the SBHC and 7 against. (meeting recording lost). Exhibit CC.
BOE member, Lydia Rivera-Abrams made several egregious and erroneous comments indicating the underlying reasoning for the Board's inaction. Exhibit CC.
At the March 16, 2022 special BOE meeting, then-Board Vice Chair Norm Ferron stated that the student survey suggesting that 14.7% of high school students had a suicide plan was not a very big number. He explained that he voted against establishing a SBHC at the high school because kids might receive counseling on "controversial topics". He was quoted stating “They might be giving them counseling directly opposed to the views of the parents.” https://www.wonkette.com/-2657224808; https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/w2pssf5
BOE member Jason Muscara was the Vice President of the CT American Guard, a group the Southern Poverty Law classified as a general hate group. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) published an article in 2017 identifying the American Guard as having “white supremacist” connections. After the SEL presentation by the Pupil Services Director during the April 27, 2022, BOE meeting, Mr. Muscara said that he does not agree with restorative practices and feels the schools need more disciplinary action to address behaviors in middle and high school.
The Board voted to reinstate a Native American mascot name that the District is not currently using, costing the District over $94,000 in grant funding annually.
None of the six BOE members who opposed the SBHC:
Has a child attending Killingly Public Schools. BOE member Kyle Napierata has a child who is home-schooled.
Has any mental/behavioral health degrees or certifications.
Has ever stepped foot in the KHS counseling office to ask what resources they need to keep the schools and students safe.
On April 28, 2022, a public hearing that was petitioned by the community to get answers to the following questions, “We, the undersigned, all duly qualified voters in and for the Town of Killingly, County of Windham, and State of Connecticut, respectfully request the Killingly Board of Education (KBOE) hold a public hearing on the School Based Health Center to hear testimony about the SBHC. We respectfully request the 6 members who voted NO (Janice Joly, Norm Ferron, Lydia Rivera Abrams, Kyle Napierata, Jason Muscara, Jennifer Hegedus) provide during this hearing, the reasons why they voted NO and how their NO votes were in the best interest of the children they serve." The Board stated they would not respond that evening to any questions the community asked. BOE Policy 9325, states “Board of Education shall acknowledge in writing any citizen who addresses said Board in writing within two weeks of the meeting at which said comments were presented.” Killingly resident and parent of KHS students, Kristine Cicchetti presented the above questions in writing per Board policy at the April 28, 2022 public hearing. At the May 11, 2022, BOE meeting, during public comment Kristine Cicchetti reminded the Board of the questions and the timeline for their response (the deadline was the next day). This request was ignored, and the Board failed to comply with their own policies.
Page 14: The Complaint is Premature
The Board's filing argues that the 10-4b complaint is premature as the Board has not taken final action on the SBHC. The negative vote on March 16, 2022, was a final action by the Board.
The Board would not have continued to discuss the SBHC after their March 16, 2022, action if not for parents, students and school staff speaking at public comment at every Board meeting. On April 29, 2022, Norm Ferron, the new Board of Education Chair, went on WINY radio and stated that they would not be adding the SBHC to future agendas as they had too many other things to discuss, and the BOE wanted to see how the state investigation would play out. Yet, the Board's 26-page response to the complaint states on page 12 that the BOE will add SBHC and alternatives to the agenda for discussion on May 11, 2022. It did not happen. These facts show that their March 16, 2022 vote was their final action.
The Board was presented with a motion by BOE member Chris Veins on April 27, 2022, to add the issue of the school-based health center to the agenda. The motion was seconded by Susan Lannon. The other BOE members voted no to that motion and it failed.
In addition, at the May 11, 2022, meeting, BOE member Chris Veins made a motion to amend that evening’s agenda to add the SBHC discussion and possible action. It was seconded by Susan Lannon. Susan Lannon requested a roll call vote. It was voted down by the other 6 members. BOE member Lydia Rivera-Abrams stated that they had already taken action on the SBHC, and it was a no. Ms. Rivera-Abrams went on to say, if the supporters continue to push it, it will get even worse. (As of the time this brief was filed, the meeting recording has not been posted publicly, however, it should be uploaded shortly. The exchange about the SBHC after the vote against amending the agenda begins approximately 30 minutes into the meeting and continues again during the Town Council Liaison report. The video, when posted, can be found at: Killingly High School - Dayville, CT (nfhsnetwork.com).
As of the filing of this brief, no interventions have been implemented to address the mental health crisis the Killingly students face daily. The Board has repeatedly declined numerous opportunities to take action to provide increased resources, supports and interventions to ensure students safety and provide the supports for the whole child which is necessary in order to learn.
Pages 15 -24: Responses to Allegations
The Board's responses to the allegations in the Complaint have been addressed in this Reply Brief. Rather than repeating what has already been stated, Complainants stand by each of the allegations cited. One allegation does need further response. On page 20, the Board states the claimants assert “The Proposed SBHC is the best way to address the mental health care needs of Killingly High School students.”
On the contrary, the claimants assert that the proposed SBHC is a useful resource. This issue is not that the Board failed to choose the best possible option. Rather, when faced with a demonstrable crisis in mental health for its students, the Board rejected a demonstrably workable solution for political reasons while going through a meaningless exercise of considering alternative. As noted above, hiring new staff trained in supporting the mental health and emotional needs of students is simply not an option in light of the limited school budget and the extreme difficulty already faced by the administration in hiring additional mental health staff.
Complainants are certainly open to other options to address the need. They have not seen any alternatives that are viable, affordable, and targeted to the need. A SBHC is viable, affordable and targeted to the need.
Attached hereto are statements by various parents, community members, students and school staff concerning the mental health crisis in Killingly and the failure of the Board of Education to address the concern. The following statements of the following individuals are attached:
A. Nicola Able
B. Thomas Burr
C. Kristine Cicchetti
D. John Day Jr.
E. Stephen & Christina Drowne
F. Heidi Driscoll
G. Marcia Griffiths Farqhuar
H. Lucille Garcia
I. Elise Geary
J. Nancy Grandelski
K. Lisa Higgins
L. Ken & Randie Long
M. Jessica Long
N. Lacey Luneau
O. Sarah McCurdy
P. Misty Murdock
Q. Richard Murray
R. Tiffany O’Leary
S Erika Ponciano
T. Janelle Provencher
U. Christine Rosati Randall
V. Monique Revellese
W. Patrice Rodgers
X Emily Ross
Y. Ivy Ross
Z. Alyssah Yater
Additional Exhibits include:
AA. Summary of WINY Interview with Janice Joly.
BB. Email from Board member Lydia Rivera-Abrams to Kristine Cicchetti.
CC. Index to BOE Meeting Video Recordings.
DD. Documents in response to FOIA Request.
The issue is whether the Killingly Board of Education has met the education interest of the State by its failure to provide adequate services to the students in Killingly Public Schools. The establishment of a school-based health center would meet the crisis in mental health in Killingly. The Board has disapproved of establishing a SBHC. And, the Board has not taken any action whatsoever to deal with the looming catastrophe. In failing to act, the Killingly Board of Education has failed to meet the educational interest of the State. The State Department of Education is obligated to order corrective action.
Andrew A. Feinstein
Attorney for Concerned Residents/Parents
of Killingly Students
cc. by email: Attorney Linda L. Yoder
Attorney Richard A. Mills, Jr.
Attorney Christopher A. Tracey