The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Inc. (COPAA) is a national organization whose members work with schools and Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams every day on behalf of the 6.5 million children with disabilities in the United States. Because of our work, we feel intense and personal pain over the tragedy that occurred in Newtown in 2012, and again today in reading the sad, all too familiar tale of failure to serve expressed within the Office of the State of Connecticut Child Advocate Report on the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.We express our deepest condolences to all of the families involved and the entire Newtown community, as the facts contained in this report must surely resurface or amplify feelings of loss, frustration and anger. The report, however, provides us with facts to use in evaluating our educational and mental health systems.
Since 1975 federal law, the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), has required school districts to identify, evaluate and implement individualized programs for children with disabilities. By design, our local schools are the first service community. As parents, advocates and attorneys with and working for children in the special education process, we are especially familiar with the struggles of families to obtain appropriate services for their children and the many issues that come with raising a child with a disability. We also know the dilemmas faced by schools to provide learning environments that are safe, positive, and secure for all students and educators.
The Child Advocate report documents Adam Lanza's deep emotional issues and the lengthy inaction of Newtown Public Schools to properly address his needs. Sadly, instead of providing services, the district removed him from school, providing only limited educational services without any oversight to ensure his needs were being met. Although the Yale Child Study Center made specific recommendations in 9th grade to address his emotional needs, the district ignored them. By 10th grade, he was again withdrawn from school. While the Child Advocate is certainly correct that "no direct line of causation can be drawn," between these lapses and the horrific actions in Newtown it does provide us with a clear picture of the school system’s failure to meet their obligations to properly consider important educational and mental health information; to properly identify needed educational and mental health issues; and, to provide critical educational services as required by the IDEA.
The report also documents decision-making on the Parents' part that appear to have contributed to an already untenable situation. As noted in the report and witnessed by our members, many parents of students with disabilities become isolated, and struggle to find help between the educational and mental health systems. The IDEA creates an affirmative obligation on school districts to offer parent counseling and training to parents for this very reason. This is consistent with the recommendations contained in the report “to increase access to therapeutic services, psycho-education, and peer support for families who have children with specialized needs.” This legal protection and service apparently was not provided by the school system.
The inability or refusal to meet the needs of students with mental health needs is something regularly seen and experienced by our members. We must take seriously the need to strengthen and coordinate our country’s education and mental health systems. We must also recognize the need for stringent accountability to ensure that all students with disabilities, including emotional disabilities, are identified and provided with individualized and effective services to which they are entitled under the law. We are encouraged that the Newtown Public Schools now has different special education leadership from the decision-makers in place during the events outlined in the Child Advocate's report. We hope this report results in a more effective approach to these crucial issues in Newtown and across the nation.
The IDEA can make a positive difference, if it is fully funded, and when educators work collaboratively with families to utilize its broad range of tools so that all students can progress through school with the supports and services they require to be responsible and contributing members of their communities.
To read the report visit: http://www.ct.gov/oca/