Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) has released its long-awaited, exhaustively researched report on the December 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The report’s authors had access to undisclosed information about shooter Adam Lanza, including educational records, medical and psychiatric records, and police interviews with his father, filling in many of the gaps in previous reporting and illuminating some aspects of the killer’s troubled psyche. Unfortunately, its policy recommendations are all too predictable: in order to ensure that no such tragedy happens again, the state must empower itself to subvert the rights of parents to make educational and health decisions on behalf of their children.
The OCA report is not to be confused with the work of the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, appointed by Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy, which made headlines when it recommended an increase in state oversight of homeschooled children with emotional or behavioral challenges. As the OCA report reveals for the first time, however, Adam Lanza was never homeschooled. Rather, the Newtown School District placed him on “homebound” status during his eighth-grade year and made several attempts to get him to return to school for ninth grade; he returned to a mainstream classroom in tenth grade. Local school districts are obligated to ensure that such children keep up with the curriculum and stay on grade level—an obligation that, the report shows, Newtown district officials did not meet (school districts have no such obligations regarding homeschooled children). Lanza’s mother evidently worked with a community psychiatrist to provide continuing medical justification for his status. According to the report, she refused all of the district’s offers of special-education support and tutoring for her son. Why she refused, and why the district allowed her to refuse, is not clear.
“On a number of levels and on numerous occasions,” the report declares, “the district did not follow appropriate procedures, monitor [Lanza’s] IEP progress for goals and objectives, or document attempts to follow up with providers or the family regarding psychiatric or pediatric care.” As far back as fifth grade, Lanza had written and illustrated an “extremely disturbing” spiral-bound book featuring “images and narrative relating child murder, cannibalism, and taxidermy.” Though school officials were aware of the book—an administrator spoke to Lanza’s mother about his attempts to sell copies of it to his peers—no action was taken. Was this a missed opportunity to intervene and prevent the first domino leading to Sandy Hook from falling? Perhaps. It may also have been the kind of episode that happens every day in schools around the country. Hindsight makes the spiral-bound book seem obviously significant.
Reading the OCA report, one gets the strong impression that the Newtown school system was glad to be rid of the burden of educating Adam Lanza. He was even allowed to graduate a year early from Newtown High School. “By the beginning of [Lanza’s] junior year, he had accumulated 11.5 credits towards the required 20 for graduation. By the end of the year, he was credited with 21, which allowed him to graduate a year early and exit special education services.” In other words, the school let Lanza double his academic credits in a single year, despite his having missed an entire year—ninth grade—on homebound status and despite well-documented concerns about his mental and emotional stability. The report doesn’t explain whether such an accommodation is afforded every student, but it seems likely that the district bent the rules in Lanza’s case, perhaps to spare itself further engagement with what it viewed as a difficult student and a weird family.
And yet, the OCA’s recommendations are all geared toward empowering teachers and administrators and expanding their legal rights to challenge a parent’s decision on how best to educate a child—apparently predicated on the belief that school officials could have intervened at various times to forestall the eventual tragedy. The report proposes reforming the “siloed approach” to evaluating mental and emotional illness in school-aged children. The problem, it suggests, was that the Lanza family’s right to medical privacy made it impossible for school officials to connect the dots regarding Adam Lanza’s deteriorating condition and provide him with the help he needed. The report’s authors imagine teams of school psychologists performing “comprehensive educational assessments” that will, presumably, identify the next Adam Lanza and surround him with “cohesive, multidisciplinary supports.”
But the OCA’s faith in the school system to preempt unimaginable atrocities is misplaced. While it’s conceivable that “training and information concerning mental health issues as they arise during the developmental years and in the context of changing environmental expectations” could have prevented the Sandy Hook tragedy, most young people with social anxiety and obsessive-compulsive tendencies don’t become mass murderers. It’s neither fair nor appropriate to place the burden of identifying the next Adam Lanza on teachers and administrators.
The revelation that Lanza was never homeschooled also casts new light on the earlier recommendations of the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission. The commission took pains to emphasize that it didn’t have access to the same records that the OCA had. Yet, Harold I. Schwartz, psychiatrist in chief at the Institute of Living in Hartford, served on both panels and is listed as one of the OCA report’s primary authors. Schwartz even made a special defense of the Sandy Hook commission’s controversial homeschooling recommendation in public deliberations in September. People would be critical of the proposed restrictions on homeschooling, he said, but “given the individuals involved in the tragedy that formed the basis of this commission, we believe that it is very germane. . . . The facts leading up to this incident support the notion [that there is a] risk in not addressing the social and emotional learning needs of [homeschooled] children.” Why would Schwartz say such a thing if he knew that Adam Lanza had not been homeschooled? This will only add to Connecticut homeschoolers’ suspicions that school officials are using the Newtown tragedy as a pretext to limit their rights.
In the aftermath of a senseless crime, the hunger for answers is understandably strong. So is the human propensity to imagine what could have gone differently. But the desire to prevent a recurrence often leads to the erosion of essential liberties. Hard cases make bad law. The state of Connecticut should resist the temptation to restrict the right to medical privacy and the rights of parents to make decisions about their children’s education because of the actions of Adam Lanza.