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Testimony of Andrew A. Feinstein - Joint Hearing of Committee on Public Health and Committee on Children

Feb. 25, 2022

Chairwoman Linehan, Chairman Anwar, Chairwoman Daugherty Abrams, Chairman Steinberg, Senator Kelly, Representative Dauphinais, Senator Somers, Senator Hwang, Representative Petit and members of the Committee.

My name is Andrew Feinstein and I am the Legislative Chair of Special Education Equity for Kids in Connecticut (SEEK), a statewide organization of parents, providers, attorneys and advocates working for excellent education for students with disabilities.

H.B. 5001 is the vehicle for the most critical and far-reaching initiative to address the burgeoning and devastating incidence of emotional, social, behavioral and mental health disorders among our children and youth. The Legislature needs to think big and do it right.

Let’s be clear: while the DSM may have a bright line test for when a child has a mental illness, the reality is that social, emotional and mental disorders are a continuum. And, if we fail to address signs of trouble early, we buy ourselves a serious, disruptive, and expensive condition later. That is why the primary target for child mental health needs to be in the schools.

Identifying, intervening, fostering the mental health of children and youth takes place in three arenas. The bulk of the attention has been focused on acute care and the lack of emergency room and in-patient psychiatric care. Less attention has been focused on the before and the after. Connecticut public schools play a large role in the before and after. Their responsibility for and ability to provide the supports needed must be made clear in this legislation and it needs to be made clear in a comprehensive and coherent manner.

The need for a continuum of emotional supports and mental health resources in every public school in Connecticut is documented in the recommendations of the Social Emotional Collaborative, in the recommendations of the Juvenile Justice Policy Oversight Committee, and in the recommendations of the State Department of Education. We need this array of services for educational reasons, for behavioral reasons, for community reasons.

Because of the continuing opprobrium associated with mental illness, please add to this legislation a change in the special education designation of “Emotional Disturbance” to either “Emotional Disorder” or, better “Social Emotional Deficit”. Those of us who practice in the field know too many cases of parents who reject needed services for their child because they are appalled by the designation. The label Social Emotional Deficit much more aptly describes the category of students we are talking about.

To do this right, numerous provisions of H.B. 5001 need to be brought together to flesh out a continuum of interventions and settings to create a multi-tiered system of support which is understandable by all involved. Federal law defines a multi-tiered system of support as follows: “The term ‘multi-tier system of supports’ means a comprehensive continuum of evidence-based, systemic practices to support a rapid response to students’ needs, with regular observation to facilitate data-based instructional decisionmaking.”

The concept of “all involved” needs to be the heart of any such initiative. That means that teachers and students, social workers and school psychologists, cafeteria workers and bus drivers, administrators and SROs, parents and community members are all a part of the system of support, all are equipped with the training they need, and all have a job to do.

In designing this system of support, known as a MTSS, we need to recognize that Connecticut’s 205 school districts and 1044 public schools vary widely in size, demographics, and resources. One size clearly does not fit all. So, what the Legislature should mandate is that each public school in the state adopt and implement a system that meets certain minimum criteria, and the Legislature should appropriate the money on an ongoing basis to permit these systems to operate.

In designing the criteria, we need to keep in mind that the closest relationship most children have is with their classroom teacher. So, first and foremost, we need to train teachers in recognizing signs of distress, anxiety, trauma, alienation, mania, depression and the like. Then, we need to train them in restorative practices, de-escalation, building relationships, meeting the child where the child is, and, most importantly, avoiding punitive discipline and exclusion to address emotional and mental health issues. And we need to evaluate teachers based on their success in recognizing and addressing the social, emotional and mental health needs of students. This training needs to be done using a train the trainer model. The training cannot be one and done. Schools need to have someone responsible for ensuring that teachers and the rest of the staff are utilizing their training to provide the support that students need.

The ability of teachers to assess and support students in need depends in large part on the size of the class. Substantial peer reviewed research shows that the optimum class size is around 15 students. It is unacceptable that Bridgeport has 29 students in first grade classes. To protect the mental health of students, we need to guarantee that no classroom has more than 20 or 22 students.

We need to train the rest of the school staff as well. This includes support staff and cafeteria workers, janitors and secretaries. Their training and responsibilities are far less than those of teachers, but they need to know enough to recognize signs of distress, to make the appropriate referrals within the school or district and to avoid making situations worse.

The bill appropriately takes steps to augment mental health staff, i.e. school psychologists, social workers, and guidance counselors. We need more of these folks in schools. We also need to relieve school psychologists of their evaluation functions so they can actually provide counseling and supports to students. The evaluation function should be assigned to the Regional Education Service Centers on a reimbursable basis from the district needing the evaluation. School psychologists need to be clinicians and counselors, not test administrators.

If we are going to continue to have School Resource Officers, we need a special, intense training program for them. They need to understand the nature and presentation of various disabilities and effective methods to deescalate tense situations. They should be evaluated based on how few disruptions there are in school and in how few school-based arrests they make.

Fundamentally, we need to establish a continuum of services. Teachers need a process to remove a dangerous or seriously disruptive student from the classroom that does not result in the removal of that student from education, counseling, and support. Students who need to be removed from the classroom on a repeated basis need to be evaluated for special education services. But, whether eligible or not, they need goals and objectives to be worked on in an alternative setting until they are able to rejoin the class safely. The notion of throwing a kid out of school for a year is a fundamental abdication of our responsibility.

We need to involve parents in this process. School-based issues can be a manifestation of home-based problems. Trained school officials need to build relationships with parents and guardians and need to have a satchel full of services that can be provided. Schools should provide a robust program of parent training. The issue, of course, is not fundamentally one of uninterested parents. The issue is overstressed parents, single parents, parents who need to work two or three jobs to feed their families, parents who lack the basic parenting skills. Rather than blaming a kid’s in-school problems on his or her parent, schools need to reach out to those parents and provide them the resources they need. Parents remain in charge of their child. They need to be involved, informed and equipped with the supports they need.

One of the big missing elements in schools is mentors, particularly for pre-teen and teenaged boys. This bill should establish a system to hire and train mentors from the community to guide and inspire our youth. These mentors would not be mental health professionals. They would be individuals who look like and grew up in similar environments to the kids they are working with. Their job is to show their mentees that they can grow up to be successful and responsible members of society.

Presently, in many cases, there seems to be a wall between schools and community mental health providers. We need to break down that wall and have public schools and community organizations work hand in hand.

Many schools have a fair number of the services needed already in place. So, this scheme is not reinventing the wheel. Sadly, the schools with the greatest need for social, emotional, behavioral and mental health support are the schools in property-poor towns and cities. We need this continuum of supports available in all schools. This is going to cost money on a continuing basis. We cannot rely on federal COVID stimulus funds to pay for this program in the long run, but we should certainly encourage districts to use those funds to set up these programs immediately.

We also need the State Department of Education to oversee, provide training, monitor, and intervene where necessary to make this program work. SDE has been so underfunded that it cannot do so with its present staffing level.

So, establishing this multi-tiered system of supports in all schools will cost money. At this point, it is impossible to estimate the cost without having SDE create a rubric and assess each school against that rubric. Once that is complete, money can be fed to districts to get their schools up to a minimum level of support. So, from a practical point of view, this bill should provide a substantial sum to the SDE to create and implement the rubric and then to provide grants to schools to create MTSS that meet minimum requirements.

There is another element to this that should not be missed. Many students face emotional and behavioral issues because they cannot keep up with their classmates. This is particularly true of students who do not learn to read by third grade. We cannot hope to address the mental health crisis in schools without expending enormous effort to get all kids reading by third grade.

Special education is available to students who have one of 13 specified disabilities and who, because of that disability, requires special education and related services. Some of the students suffering from social, emotional, behavioral and mental health deficits clearly qualify for special education. Some do not. The point is that services under a MTSS should not, in any way, be limited to kids with IEPs. Indeed, resource rooms and self-contained settings may be appropriate temporary alternative placements for students who are highly disruptive or destructive in the classroom. While these students should certainly be evaluated, such settings should be open to all students based on need and not limited to those eligible for special education.

SEEK congratulates Chairwoman Linehan and Representative Exum, Chairman Steinberg and Chairman Anwar for all their hard work in bringing H.B. 5001 to this point. My colleagues from SEEK – Terry Bedard, Gerri Fleming and John Flanders – are also testifying as to certain elements of the raised bill which need some work. We trust it is not too late to do what we need to do. We have already made public schools the first responders to students with social, emotional, behavioral and mental health deficits. Now, we need to give them the direction and the resources they need to do the job.

Thank you for listening. I am glad to answer questions and to work with you on improving this legislation.