Sunday, December 16, 2012

Reflections on the Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre

During the past 48 hours of coverage of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, several residents of Newtown, Connecticut have come forward to attest that the Newtown School District is a wonderful school district. Like many other public school districts, Newtown probably does provide a fine public education for many students. However, some of the "breaking news" indicates that this may not have been true in the case of its former student, Adam Lanza.

The developing facts of the school massacre are probably all too familiar to attorneys who, like me, represent parents of children with autism and other neurodevelopmental disabilities in special education matters.  About twice per year, in the course of representing parents in special education mediations, the facts compel me to tell the school district and area education agency involved, "This situation needs to change immediately – you’re incubating a school shooter."

Today I am thankful beyond words for the fact that on those occasions, the school districts involved have been represented by a prominent and insightful school attorney who is well-versed in both special education and special education law.  Each time she has recognized the risks involved, and has guided her clients to make the necessary changes.  As a result, while representing our clients zealously and with integrity, we have helped them solve problems before violence occurred or escalated. I should add here that I am thankful that many situations which hold potential for future violence are resolved through the work of insightful and highly skilled teachers. I count my own sister, who teaches in an out-of-state public school, among those bright stars.

There seems to be no doubt that Adam Lanza’s disabilities played a role in his violent acts. According to the networks, Tim Dalton, a neighbor and former classmate of Adam’s said, "Adam Lanza has been a weird kid since we were five years old." Adam’s paternal aunt, Marsha Lanza, explained that Adam had experienced school difficulties since middle school, and that his mother, Nancy, fought with the School District about his needs related to autism spectrum disorder until she gave up and pulled him out of high school in order to home school him.

While much of today’s media coverage seems to be focusing on the fact that Nancy Lanza apparently kept unsecured guns in her home, there’s more to this story than that lethal error of judgment. From my perspective, I am wondering what happened or didn’t happen in the course of Adam’s public school education that caused him to decide to massacre teachers and students in his home school district.  

While public figures are calling for "meaningful change" in order to prevent future school massacres, they seem to be limiting their discussion to issues involving access to guns and lack of access to mental health care.  I have heard no discussion of an investigation into how Adam’s experiences in the Newtown School District, which consumed nearly half of his waking hours, five days per week, 180 days per year, for more than ten years, may have laid a foundation for his violent retaliation against the school district on Friday.  Had the School District worked more effectively with Adam and his mother, might Friday's violence have been averted?

While it may be difficult for those who investigate the massacre to probe this terribly wounded school district in regard to its past conduct, any meaningful investigation into the factors that combined to produce this massacre cannot avoid considering that even in school districts located in nice communities, some school teachers and administrators can and do act in ways that contribute to the propensity of some children to harm themselves and others in terrible ways.


  1. What you have said here is exactly what I have been thinking. You are so spot on. I am a mother of a child on the spectrum. The school he use to attend would do nothing for him. They basically denied everything. They even challenged the diagnosis given to him by a Neurologist at C.H.O.C. My son is doing well now that he has been away from the Brick-and-Mortar setting. It's been almost 2 years. I home school him through K-12 and am so happy with the services they willingly provide him.
    I chose to focus my energy on my son rather then use it all up fighting out local school. He now received Speech Therapy, Occupational Therapy, and consults with a school psychologist. It pains me to think of the children who are still in the setting that I removed my son from.

    1. Children who are on the autism spectrum are often overlooked by the educational system. Many schools will claim to offer services, but that child must either show severe need or have some difficulty managing behaviors that can interfere with the educational settings. If none of these things are present, a child with autism on the higher functioning side of the scale, will not be helped. Even children who are on the lower end of the spectrum can be overlooked if they are talented in certain academics such as art or gym.

      Having worked in the educational setting I have witnessed various programs overlook needy children on the spectrum. Autism Spectrum Disorders are complex and it sometimes takes a dedicated parent/care taker to get their child the services they deserve.

      I hate to end this post on a negative note, but I am rather disappointed in my field for not stepping up help parents and their children, discuss issues of mental illness and developmental disorders, and provide help in the educational system. There is a very big hole in the system of psychology and I must say, we don't seem to be getting any better.

      Have you heard of the new DSM changes? Very upsetting, especially for those of us who know what these changes will mean to children and their parents. Read more here:

  2. I'm so glad to hear that his needs are being addressed.

  3. This question is for elementary school teachers only. What do you love about your job? What are the downsides? I am interested in becoming a teacher.

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