Two Years Later, Still Learning From Sandy Hook

Dec 14, 2014
Originally published on December 15, 2014 12:57 pm

It's been two years since a gunman killed his mother at home and then opened fire at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing 20 first-graders, six educators and himself. People in Connecticut are still hashing out just how parents and educators should handle children like Adam Lanza.

A team of doctors, lawyers, educators and social workers from Connecticut's Office of the Child Advocate issued a report a few weeks ago, and while it says that Lanza is the only one responsible for what he did when he was 20 years old, it also says that there were warning signs and missed opportunities throughout his life.

One big concern was a lack of training, knowledge, and expertise. Take Nancy Lanza – Adam Lanza's mother.

"Her instinctive course that she set was to get through the day," says Sarah Eagan, the state's child advocate and one of the report's authors. "And you get through the day by managing the day."

"And, in some ways, that's a natural instinct," Eagan adds. "She's the mother of a son who struggles to get through the day, who's afraid of everything, who doesn't want to leave the house. ... And her default coping strategy became, 'I just have to get us through.' And ... that kind of infused a lot of the choices that they made."

The report says that, when dealing with school administrators, Nancy Lanza was able to persuade them to "accommodate and appease" her son by avoiding things that made him feel uncomfortable. By the time Lanza got to high school, whether he was learning in school or at home in isolation, administrators had one narrow academic goal: keep moving forward.

"I think the school had a goal of helping him graduate and get to college," Eagan says. "That was their goal. It was a good goal."

But Eagan says it shouldn't have been the only goal. While the district was satisfied as long as Lanza kept earning credits, it virtually ignored his social and emotional development. In fact, the report says the district mislabeled Lanza in his crucial high school special education plan — entirely ignoring the more apt eligibility categories of autism and emotional disturbance. The district declined an interview.

Andrea Spencer, dean of the School of Education at Pace University and one of the co-authors of the child advocate's report, says the schools focused only on his academics and not on the depth of his disabilities.

"It appears to me from what we know that Adam was one of those students who slid beneath the radar in terms of his very serious social, emotional needs," she says.

That slide should be a real concern for anyone who deals with children, Spencer says.

"I guess the lesson that occurs to me is that we have to get and support a broader perspective on children's needs as part of schools, classrooms, teachers, administrators," she says. "Everyone needs to be more cognizant of the social/emotional aspects of children's development."

Jennifer Laviano, a Connecticut attorney who represents children with special education needs, says school districts often don't follow special education law intentionally.

"I have several clients with not terribly dissimilar profiles to Adam Lanza about whom not only am I worried, their parents are worried, their psychiatrists are worried, and I have gone to PPTs (Planning and Placement Teams) with school districts and said, 'This kid is another Newtown waiting to happen,' and they are telling me, 'No,' when I asked for an out-of-district placement for this child, which is recommended by the psychiatrist," she says. "They're saying, 'No.' And why? Because it's expensive."

Spencer says money is a part of it but so are educational priorities.

"The degree of emphasis on test scores has the danger of preventing teachers from really looking closely at the breadth of a child's developmental status," Spencer says. "For example, social and emotional skills. And, in this case, it was clear that the focus was really on his academics, and despite the fact that it was very obvious – and people saw – that he was in emotional distress."

But what is obvious for Spencer may not have been obvious to everyone. So she says another lesson is this: train educators at all levels to be able to recognize and report a mental health issue when they see one.

Copyright 2014 Connecticut Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wnpr.org.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. A sad anniversary today - it was two years ago that a gunman killed his mother at home and then opened fire at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing 20 first-graders, six educators and himself. Jeff Cohen from member station WNPR tells us that people in Connecticut are still hashing out just how parents and educators should handle children like Adam Lanza.

JEFF COHEN: Connecticut's Office of the Child Advocate issued a report a few weeks ago, and it was written by a team of professionals - doctors, lawyers, educators and social workers. And while it says that Lanza is the only one responsible for what he did, it also says that there were warning signs and missed opportunities throughout his life. One big concern was a lack of training, knowledge and expertise. Take Nancy Lanza, Adam Lanza's mother.

SARAH EAGAN: Her instinctive course that she set was to get through the day. And you get through the day by managing the day.

COHEN: That's Sarah Eagan, the state's child advocate and one of the report's authors.

EAGAN: And, in some ways, that's a natural instinct. She's the mother of a son who struggles to get through the day, who's afraid of everything, who doesn't want to leave the house. And her default coping strategy became I just have to get us through. And that kind of infused a lot of the choices that they made.

COHEN: The report says that, when dealing with school administrators, Nancy Lanza was able to persuade them to accommodate and appease her son by avoiding things that made him feel uncomfortable. By the time Lanza got to high school, whether he was learning in school or at home in isolation, administrators had one narrow academic goal - keep moving forward.

EAGAN: I think the school had a goal of helping him graduate and get to college. That was their goal. It was a good goal.

COHEN: But Eagan says it shouldn't have been the only goal. While the district was satisfied as long as Lanza kept earning credits, it virtually ignored his social and emotional development. In fact, the report says the district misidentified Lanza in his crucial high school special education plan, entirely ignoring the more apt eligibility categories of autism and emotional disturbance. The district declined an interview.

Andrea Spencer is the dean of the School of Education at Pace University. She was also one of the co-authors of the child advocate's report. She says the schools focused only on his academics and not on the depth of his disabilities.

ANDREA SPENCER: It appears to me from what we know that Adam was one of those students who slid beneath the radar in terms of his very serious social and emotional needs.

COHEN: And Spencer says that slide should be a real concern for anyone who deals with children.

SPENCER: I guess the lesson that occurs to me is that we have to get and support a broader perspective on children's needs as part of schools, classrooms, teachers, administrators. Everyone needs to be more cognizant of the social-emotional aspects of children's development.

COHEN: Jennifer Laviano is an attorney who represents children with special education needs, some even in Newtown. She says school districts often don't follow special education law intentionally.

JENNIFER LAVIANO: I have several clients with not terribly dissimilar profiles to Adam Lanza about whom not only am I worried, their parents are worried, their psychiatrists are worried, and I have gone to PPTs with school districts and said this kid is another Newtown waiting to happen. And they are telling me no when I asked for an out-of-district placement for this child, which is recommended by the psychiatrist. They're saying no. And why? Because it's expensive.

COHEN: Spencer, the education dean, says money is a part of it but so are educational priorities.

SPENCER: The degree of emphasis on test scores has the danger of preventing teachers from really looking closely at the breadth of a child's developmental status - for example, social and emotional skills. And, in this case, it was clear that the focus was really on his academics, despite the fact that it was very obvious and people saw that he was in emotional distress.

COHEN: But what is obvious for Spencer may not have been obvious to everyone. So she says another lesson is this - train educators at all levels to be able to recognize and report a mental health issue when they see one. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Cohen in Hartford. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.