How politics derailed mental health care at Killingly High School
Alyssah Yater was a straight-A student until the symptoms of depression set in and suddenly, in her junior year, she was at risk of failing some of her classes.
Yater’s therapist was almost an hour away, which meant she had to leave class early for her appointments. And she wasn’t the only one struggling. She remembers fellow classmates fighting and spending mornings texting friends to make sure they came to class.
“At our high school, if you meet someone who’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m perfectly happy with my life,’ you’re just like, ‘Oh that’s weird.’ It seems uncommon,” said Yater, now a senior.
She felt awkward emailing teachers to let them know why she’d been out of class so often and said having an on-campus clinic would have cut down missed class time.
In March, the Killingly Board of Education voted 6-3 to reject a proposal that would have provided just that — a grant-funded, school-based mental health center at the high school.
The vote led to a complaint against the board. The board chair resigned, and the state Department of Education launched an investigation.
The controversial decision has been mired in politics. Those opposed to the mental health center have raised complaints and references more commonly heard from the political right: cancel culture, Hillary Clinton, abortion, gender identity. Some wonder if schools are the best place for mental health care.
Norm Ferron, who was elected the new chairman during the board’s April 13 meeting, said he voted against the school mental health center because he was concerned that kids might get counseling about “controversial topics.”
“Basically, what is a stranger to the parents can be advising their child on any issue,” he said. “They might be giving them counseling directly opposed to the views of the parents.”
The Killingly Board of Education is used to controversy. In recent months, it voted down a proposal to host a vaccine clinic at the school and rescinded the district’s mask policy with language that makes it harder to bring back. Many members ran on the promise that they would reinstate the school’s controversial mascot, the Redmen, which they did in 2020.
The quiet corner, but not unique
A former mill town located on the border of Rhode Island, Killingly sits in Connecticut’s “Quiet Corner” and has a population of just over 17,700. Its 50 square miles are transected by rivers that used to power the cotton mills in the town’s heyday. Since the mills shuttered, the Frito-Lay manufacturing site is among the largest employers.
Although the state as a whole trends blue in national elections, Killingly went for Trump in 2016 and again in 2020, when the former president got 56.6% of the vote. The town council is overwhelmingly Republican — only one of its nine elected members is a Democrat — and the population of the town is overwhelmingly white. Its poverty rate is nearly 5 percentage points higher than the state. The median household annual income is just above $66,000, well below the state median of nearly $80,000.
Main Street is lined with government buildings and businesses — a couple of pizza restaurants, town hall, a church, the adult probation office — and where the downtown fades, the streets shoot off into residential areas with many single-family homes.
What is happening in Killingly is not unique. In communities across the country, conservative parents and board of education members have pushed back against school-based mental health supports such as social-emotional learning, saying they are a subversive way to sneak teachings on critical race theory and gender identity into public schools.
In Connecticut, these topics are sure to be at play in the upcoming gubernatorial election. A new independent-expenditures group, the super PAC “Parents Against Stupid Stuff”, has pledged to spend more than $1 million arguing that Gov. Ned Lamont, a first-term Democrat, is at odds with parents over critical race theory, sexually explicit curricula in public schools and the participation of transgender athletes in girls’ sports.
The pushback from some conservatives on those issues comes at the worst possible time for those who are trying to fight a youth mental health crisis in America.
State lawmakers have shown a renewed focus on mental health care this legislative session and introduced three sweeping bills that aim to address mental health in schools and early childhood as well as fund mental health services in medical centers, educational facilities and the community. In December, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory on a national youth mental health crisis exacerbated by the pandemic.
‘Putting politics over students’
This is what happened in Killingly.
On one hand, educators and students were clamoring for help to address what they say is a burgeoning mental health crisis.
In a mental health nonprofit’s survey late last year of Killingly students from 7th to 12th grades, nearly 30% of the respondents reported that they’ve had thoughts about hurting themselves. And 14.7% have made suicide plans.
Wait lists for mental health care are long, and for those who can access it, they’re often pulled out of class and fall behind. The school has had an open position for a staff psychologist for more than a year.
When the board denied the request for a school-based mental health center, parents filed a formal complaint saying the board wasn’t providing “the minimum services and supports necessary to deal with the social, emotional and mental health needs of the students of Killingly High School.”
“They’re putting politics over students,” said Seth Varin, another senior at Killingly. He’s struggled with depression and anxiety, particularly during the isolation of the pandemic. He will graduate soon and plans to attend Norwich University in Vermont to study physical education — with the goal of coming back home to teach at Killingly one day.
“I want this for the future grades,” he said. “Even if it saves one person, I feel like it would be beneficial.”
“You’re worrying about yourself, and you’re worrying about everyone else who’s also struggling and trying to get them to come to school and graduate and just get through the year,” Yater said.
Yater and Varin were among several students who have stood up, gripped the edges of the lectern and told the local board that they need mental health care in meetings spanning March and April. The students said they suffered trauma after trauma before the pandemic and spent the last two years isolated from their friends and living through a global pandemic.
In interviews with the CT Mirror, school staff told stories about students having anxiety attacks and needing to call 211 for mental health services for children as young as 8. Parents talked about their kids’ needs for therapy, mental illnesses and suicide attempts. Students said they are hurting and don’t feel heard.
The interviews with dozens of people involved in the school district show a pattern: The kids are shouting for help, and they say the adults in charge haven’t given it to them.
At an informational session for the clinic and on social media after, students and parents said, community members brought up concerns that students would be counseled on issues such as abortion, gender and birth control.
A survey circulated by state Rep. Anne Dauphinais, R-Killingly, titled “Public school services for minors without parental consent,” asked questions about whether parents would agree with their kids receiving counseling on contraceptives, premarital sex, abortion, gender identity or religion without consent.
The survey also asked if parents supported schools “offering or administering” medications or vaccinations to minors “without parental knowledge or consent.”
Generations Family Health Center, a nonprofit based in Willimantic that would have provided therapy at the school, has said it won’t offer medications or vaccinations to minors at the clinic.
The survey also questioned whether parents would approve of their children receiving mental health services without parental consent.
The survey results have been cited repeatedly to push back against the health center. Dauphinais’ husband, Dale Dauphinais, referenced them in public comment at a March 9 school board meeting. Dale Dauphinais is the chair of the Quiet Corner Tea Party Patriots.
“I believe this is an unwarranted government intervention,” Dale Dauphinais said. “This is where they divide the parents and the students.”
Dale Dauphinais declined to be interviewed about the health center and instead offered comments about the CT Mirror reporter who contacted him.
“You are not a reporter, you are a biased, dishonest propaganda machine,” Dale Dauphinais wrote in his emailed comment. “You have a better chance of interviewing God because of your dishonesty. Use that as my quote. I bet you won’t, and it will prove my point.”
Anne Dauphinais didn’t respond to requests for an interview about why she included certain questions on the survey or her thoughts on the center. In a written statement, she said she supported parental rights.
“I have always stood for and believed in parental rights,” the statement read. “l sent this particular survey out to get the pulse of where those who participated in the survey stood. This survey was conducted to explore the thoughts and beliefs of all who chose to complete it.”
Ferron, the board chair, said while he wasn’t aware of the specifics of the questions, he thought the results refuted “some of the other surveys that were done.”
“I’m not sure exactly specifically what that was, but I know it contradicted some of the other surveys that were done,” he said. “It was more inclusive of more parents.”
The complaint to the state says he and former chair Janice Joly pushed against the mental health survey results. Joly questioned whether the kids were telling the truth in the survey, while Ferron thought 14.7% of respondents having a suicide plan was “not that big” of a number.
“How do you know they were honest responses?” Joly said, according to the complaint. “We’re dealing with kids. They could have written anything. That’s what kids do.”
That comment, at the March 16 meeting, was met with audible gasps. One student, who had just told the board that he was a part of 14.7% who had a suicide plan, began to cry, according to the complaint.
Culture wars and the ‘Redmen’
The rhetoric surrounding the health center at Killingly is evocative of past “culture wars” that have been used by politicians to stir up anger, said Chris Haynes, a political science professor at the University of New Haven.
In the past it’s been issues often related to race, such as critical race theory, that sparked vitriol largely not based in fact. Still, it can be politically advantageous for politicians to advance ideas that evoke strong feelings, Haynes said.
Put simply: People who are angry and afraid tend to vote.
“A lot of these things kind of erupt in different cities and towns,” he said. “Other programs are being tainted politically to other kinds of caustic ideas like critical race theory.”
These political strategies have also caused parents to grow increasingly concerned about what their kids are being taught in school, he said.
“Parents have decided, ‘We’re going to open up the cover of what gets taught in high school education,’” Haynes said. “I think it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what high school education is about and what teachers are doing and what they should be doing.”
This isn’t the first time school board members have brought up culture wars. Some of the Republican members ran on promises that they would reinstate the school’s abandoned mascot: the Redmen.
The last board voted to change the mascot, citing the word’s racist roots. Students voted on their favorite mascot, and the “Redhawks” won the referendum.
But when the new board came into power, it brought back the Redmen. Under a 2021 law, if the mascot isn’t changed by 2023, the town will forfeit close to $100,000 annually in grant money from the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund.
The schools haven’t used the mascot since, opting instead to use no mascot at all.
It wasn’t always like this in Killingly, two former board members said.
Richard Murray, who served on the board from 2003 to 2017, said controversy used to be over issues such as the budget, and the disagreements didn’t seem so political. He decided not to run for office again because of the increasing focus on politics.
He was board chair when the board decided to approve the mascot change to the Redhawks.
“People were elected not because they cared about education or kids or Killingly, for that matter. They got elected because they wanted the mascot changed,” Murray said. “And hence problems arise almost immediately.”
In a letter to the editor published in the Village Newspapers ahead of her resignation, Joly brought up Hillary Clinton and “angry mobs,” a term commonly used by former President Donald Trump.
“You all might recall that the majority of people in Killingly voted for the candidates they wanted to represent them back in November, and it wasn’t the Democrats,” Joly wrote. “Clearly, you are all struggling with that fact, rather like Hillary Clinton did when she lost the election.”
Joly, who voted against the health center, also wrote about bullying and harassment she’d suffered because of the center.
“It’s sad that we now have to have a police presence at our BOE meetings,” Joly wrote. “However, I feel unsafe when an angry mob of over 30 people is gathered outside the Town Hall and they are all screaming at me.”
What’s happened since
Since the board’s decision, Joly has resigned. In an interview with WINY radio, she said she left her position because there was “so much hate” and she felt people — primarily Democrats — were spreading lies and harassing her.
“I just felt like I wasn’t safe, and so I asked the town manager and the superintendent to provide police protection, because some of the people in the group had already professed that they had mental health issues, and I was afraid someone might attack me,” Joly said in the WINY interview.
Joly did not respond to interview requests from the CT Mirror.
Ferron said he’s hopeful he and the rest of the remaining board members can address the mental health concerns.
“I’m hoping that I can step up and handle the job and move the board and the schools forward,” he said.
The board is set to discuss alternative proposals and a one-year contract for the health center at its April 27 meeting tonight, Ferron said.
The state investigation
Dozens of Killingly residents submitted a formal complaint on April 5 to the state Department of Education, alleging that the board had “failed to fulfill the education interest of the State of Connecticut by failing to provide the minimum services and supports necessary to deal with the social, emotional and mental health needs of the students of Killingly High School.”
On April 11, the state agreed to investigate the issue, which is unusual.
“You don’t see many of these happen,” said Eric Scoville, a Department of Education spokesman. “They only happen … when there’s a lot of evidence that is provided.”
Complaints of this type are typically filed when someone is alleging that a particular district isn’t meeting the educational interests of the state, said Mike McKeon, Department of Education legal director.
On Monday, the board was granted a five-day extension to submit a response to the complaint, meaning they’ll have to respond by early May, McKeon said. After that, Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker will review evidence.
She’ll have the chance to request documents or call the parties in to answer questions. Then, she’ll make a recommendation to the state Board of Education, either saying she doesn’t think there’s sufficient evidence to prove the allegation or recommending a remediation plan for the district to fix the issue, McKeon said.
The board will make the final determination on what should be done.
“Given the process, that could take a few months,” McKeon said.
Several Killingly residents, including Yater and Killingly senior Julianna Morrissette, went to speak to the state board at its April meeting and ask members to investigate.
They both feel more hopeful about the center now that Joly has resigned.
Most of the Republicans on the local board, save one, voted no to the center. Lydia Rivera-Abrams, a Democrat, also voted no.
Rivera-Abrams’ vote hinged on her concern that children who don’t have individualized education plans won’t be able to get immediate help if they are in crisis. She doesn’t want them to have to wait for appointments if they need help now, she said.
Superintendent Robert Angeli said during an April board meeting that individualized education plans and therapy aren’t the same, and that under the health center plan, all high school kids could have access to mental health care. Rivera-Abrams’ argument is that the children with special education needs already have extra people attending to them.
“That, to me, has not been addressed satisfactorily,” Rivera-Abrams said in an interview.
She’d also like to see more family therapy and parental involvement, she said. She proposed an alternative plan to the health center that would add new positions to the 2022-23 budget using the district’s non-lapsing account, intended for emergencies.
The additional staff would include more special education teachers, a psychotherapist, a family therapist, two language coaches, two math coaches and two hall monitors. They’d be given signing bonuses of $5,000 and have a one-year contract.
Opponents fear the district, which has struggled to recruit educators, won’t be able to find people to fill the positions. Chris Viens, one of the other Democrats on the board, questioned whether it would be appropriate to dip into the non-lapsing account.
“It seems to me as though, as a board, we were saying we need to go into the non-lapsing account because there’s an emergency,” Viens said during an April meeting of the board. “But it feels like that emergency was created by the board not approving the [school]-based health center. So it seems like we’re going into action for an emergency that we created ourselves.”
Viens voted in favor of the health center and during the April meeting proposed revisiting the issue, with a one-year contract rather than five. His motion to add it to the agenda was voted down, although members agreed to add it to the April 27 meeting agenda, along with other alternative plans.
“I’m 100% behind the school-based health center, and I have been from the start,” Viens said in an interview.
Board member Jason Muscara said in the informational session that schools should only be for learning, according to the complaint.
Muscara was criticized during his campaign for his since-severed membership in the nationalist group the American Guard. He had served as vice president for the group’s Connecticut chapter but said later that he realized the group didn’t fit in with his values, so he ended his membership.
The group was classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2017.
Muscara did not respond to requests for comment.
Kelly Martin, the Republican who voted for the health center, declined to comment and said several times during the board’s April meeting that the community needs to heal through compromise. Martin was voted vice chair of the board following Joly’s resignation and Ferron’s appointment as chair.
Others voiced concerns that parents won’t be able to opt out or that the district will wind up paying for the service.
Ferron, the only board Republican who commented for this story, said he’d be more likely to consider the school-based health center if he had assurances that parents could opt out and if the contract was shorter.
State law allows children to receive mental health care without parental consent under certain circumstances, such as a crisis.
In an interview, he agreed that the issue had become too political.
“I think the issue has been over-politicized for sure, and I think — I liked the tempo of this last night’s meeting,” he said of the April 13 meeting. “I was impressed by the behavior of the people in attendance, and I think it was a lot more reasoned discussion.”
He also said he liked the sound of a program called Rachel’s Challenge, which aims to address bullying. Muscara proposed it as an alternative to the health center.
Rachel’s Challenge, named for one of the first victims of the Columbine shooting, has several programs for schools that work toward improving connections through social-emotional learning. Social-emotional learning is a method of teaching that includes a focus on self-awareness, self-control and empathy. It’s been shown to boost mental health for kids.
Jasmine Berti, a Killingly resident who runs a Facebook group called Parental Rights of Connecticut, also brought up the idea of peer mediation in public comment. Peer mediation is a way of resolving conflict with trained student mediators.
“I think that it would be great for students to be able to talk to each other after school, because I was bullied from kindergarten up at all the schools I’ve ever gone to, and school counseling didn’t help at all,” Berti said in the public comment period.
The proposed solution
Generations held an informational session early in 2022 and presented its plan to the community, marking Morrissette’s first substantive introduction to the center.
Morrissette, a senior, has been in therapy for years for anxiety and depression. Earlier in high school, she had to be pulled out of Spanish twice a week, and she was visiting the guidance counselor and school nurse often with mental health-related symptoms.
“I was like, ‘This is great, like, it would be a good addition to the school,’” said Morrissette.
Nearly 30 other Connecticut districts have school-based health centers, including Putnam, Windham and Norwich.
The Killingly school center would have started at three days per week until case loads increased and necessitated full-time hours. The school had a space on the third floor.
The school was one of a handful of Connecticut districts to be recommended for a school-based health center by the state School Based Health Center Expansion Workgroup.
Generations would have billed insurance, but students wouldn’t have been charged outside of that, according to a presentation from Generations.
Generations would have never charged the district for the services, according to the presentation, although several opponents said they feared that would change.
Generations also said that parental involvement in treatment is “emphasized as crucial to successful treatment.”
Its website includes forms for both the parents and child to sign.
Generations did not respond to a request for comment.
Therapy inside the school?
Students in Killingly point to 2017 as the start of their heightened mental health troubles. It was a rough year in the town.
A student died of cancer in the last days of 2016.
That January, a longtime assistant principal died. The same day, a 16-year-old student was killed in a car crash. A couple of weeks later, another student was found unresponsive on the side of the road and died about a week before his 16th birthday.
And a seventh-grader died during a softball game in May.
In a town the size of Killingly, where everyone knows everyone else, the deaths reverberated through the community. There was a community vigil. The school brought in service dogs and therapists. But after they left, the students’ wounds lingered.
“You’d think after all our class went through and all the classes around our age, that they would continue to help us with that sort of stuff, [and] they kind of just forgot about it once time has passed,” Yater said.
In 2018, just months after the school shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., an active shooter threat put the entire school in lockdown. A student recounted the experience in public comment to the local board. She recalled crouching under desks with her fellow classmates, texting loved ones goodbye and watching their teachers try to hide tears.
The 2018 threat turned out to be a plastic BB gun, but the experience sticks in students’ minds as lockdowns became a more common occurrence.
For the 2018-19 school year, the district brought in counselors and social workers from Discovery Counseling Center, a mental health nonprofit in Killingly. School staff could refer students to the center, a similar model to the one proposed to the board this year, said Elise Geary, the high school principal.
The counselors had a full caseload, and the school “could have used more,” Geary said. The program fizzled out during COVID, but when the kids came back to school it was clear they needed care after two years of isolation.
The program benefited students and helped them do better in school, Geary added. As it is now, there are often long waiting lists for private therapy, and students have to miss class for appointments. If therapy was offered at the school, missed class would be minimized, she said.
Most board members have said they understand there’s a need for mental health care but don’t think the school-based health center is the way to go. At the April 13 board meeting, members proposed alternative plans, some of which aim to support mental health care but aren’t therapy programs.
But Ferron and others have said there’s a need to focus more on academics. He said in an interview that he wants to see students attend therapy after school if they need it, rather than missing class.
“I’m also concerned that not just in Killingly, all schools nationwide are spending too much time on side issues,” Ferron said. “I think mental health should be handled by mental health people in a mental health setting.”
Over the past three years, Killingy’s school nurse has seen a 50% increase in visits related to anxiety, depression or post traumatic stress disorder, according to the school-based health center presentation.
Districtwide, calls to 211 for mental health assistance are up 10% compared to the 2018-19 school year.
Julia Revellese, 17, left Killingly her sophomore year because she needed more mental health care for an anxiety disorder. She was leaving school early so her mom could take her to private therapy, and her grades were slipping.
“I was losing myself,” Revellese said.
Even though she’d been at Killingly since kindergarten, she made the switch and attends Quinebaug Middle College, which offers concurrent high school and college courses as well as mental health care. She made the dean’s list this year.
“I did it for me,” she said of the switch. “I think if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here right now.”
Now, she’s among those pushing for the center. She wants other students to have the care she didn’t.