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.