More Newtown lawsuits will follow the first $100 million Newtown lawsuit because the Sandy Hook massacre could have been avoided if Newtown’s schools had followed Connecticut’s special education law. On Dec. 30, 2012, The Denver Channel reports that,
“A lawyer who's asking to sue Connecticut for $100 million on behalf of a 6-year-old Newtown school shooting survivor who heard violence over the school's intercom system says the potential claim is about improving school security, not money. ‘It's about living in a world that's safe,’ New Haven attorney Irving Pinsky told The Associated Press on Saturday. ‘The answer is about protecting the kids.’
“Protecting the kids” and protecting a child is already manifested in Connecticut’s special education law.
The 2007 information brochure A Parent’s Guide to Special Education in Connecticut published by the Connecticut State Department of Education, Bureau of Special Education states that,
“Special education laws and regulations are meant to protect a student with a disability to ensure that he or she receives the services and assistance that may be necessary to make meaningful progress in his or her education program.“
The information brochure also informs parents that,
“In Connecticut, the special education system is based on the federal special education law, Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA 2004) and its implementing regulations, in combination with the state’s special education law, Connecticut General Statutes Section 10-76a to 10-76h, inclusive and the implementing regulations.”
Future Newtown lawsuits will probably focus on those “obligations” that Newtown’s schools had in regard to Adam Lanza.
“In consideration of its obligations under IDEA 2004, the Connecticut State Board of Education has stated that a unified and coordinated continuum of educational opportunities and supports, designed to address individual needs, serves and benefits all students. The Connecticut State Board of Education also supports the principle that Connecticut’s Common Core of Learning defines common goals for all students, including students with disabilities. Connecticut’s public education system has the duty to provide opportunities for all students to achieve these statewide student goals (motivation to learn, mastery of basic skills, acquisition of knowledge, competence in life skills and understanding society’s values). The Board presumes that these goals are best achieved in the child’s local school, although it recognizes that some children who present significant and/or unique needs require placement in alternate settings to achieve those goals.”
Adam Lanza was clearly missing “competence in life skills and understanding society’s values” and based on the observations by his teachers and classmates, he should have been placed in “alternate settings to achieve those goals.”
There is no doubt that Adam Lanza qualified for special education services. In the parent information brochure, the Connecticut State Department of Education specifies in the section “Who is eligible for special education and related services?” that
“To be eligible for special education and related services: Your child must be between 3 and 21 years old; Your child must have one or more of the following disabilities, determined by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA 2004):
- Developmental delay (for 3- to 5-year-olds, inclusive)
- Emotional disturbance
- Hearing impairment
- Intellectual disability (mental retardation)
- Multiple disabilities
- Orthopedic impairment
- Other health impairment (limited strength, vitality or alertness due to chronic or acute health problems such as lead poisoning, asthma, attention deficit disorder, diabetes, a heart condition, hemophilia, leukemia, nephritis, rheumatic fever, sickle cell anemia, and Tourette syndrome)
- Physical impairment;
- Specific learning disability
- Speech or language impairment
- Traumatic brain injury
- Visual impairment including blindness
The disability must adversely affect your child’s educational performance; and as a result; Your child requires a specially designed instructional program to address his or her unique educational needs. In Connecticut, a school district is also required to provide identification, referral and evaluation services for a child who may be gifted and/or talented. A district is not required, but has the option of, providing services to a child who has been identified as being gifted and/or talented.”
Adam Lanza qualified for special education services in Newtown’s schools for at least two of the above criteria; autism and emotional disturbance.
In a Dec. 22, 2012, report CNN wrote that “the shooter, Adam Lanza, had been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism.”
In a Dec. 15, 2012, an AP News Brief describes how Adam Lanza’s former school adviser remembers Adam Lanza as “awkward loner who had trouble feeling pain.”
Richard Novia, who was Newton High School’s school district's head of security until 2008 and who was responsible of overseeing the students’ use of soldering tools and other potentially dangerous electrical equipment, told the Associated Press in a phone interview that Adam Lanza did not seem to be able “to feel physical or psychological pain in the same way as classmates.”
"If that boy would've burned himself, he would not have known it or felt it physically."
Children who display the kind of behavior as described by Richard Novia should be referred to a PPT team according to the Connecticut State Department of Education’s information brochure. “A prompt referral to a planning and placement team (PPT) is required for any child who has been suspended repeatedly or whose behavior, attendance or progress in school is considered unsatisfactory or at a marginal level of acceptance.”
Children with Asperger's syndrome or any form of autism certainly do not kill. Children with an unrecognized and untreated emotional disturbance will.
“Trying to find information and statistics about emotional disabilities in children is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. It is lost, unseen, and hard to distinguish. Like most killers, when they strike, emotional disabilities are therefore fast, powerful, and lethal.” (Emotional disabilities in children: A silent killer)
Adam Lanza’s massacre of his own mother Nancy Lanza and 26 innocent people at Sandy Hook Elementary School shows how “fast, powerful, and lethal” an emotional disability can strike.
One of the challenges of identifying emotional disabilities lies in the name. An emotional disability may be called emotional disorder, emotional distress, emotional disturbance, or mental disorder. While many schools and school districts use the term "emotional disability" in order to identify a child for special education services, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) uses the phrase "emotional disturbance."
According to IDEA’s Regulations: Part 300 / A / 300.8 / c / 4 / (i), "Emotional disturbance means a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child's educational performance:
(A) An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
(B) An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.
(C) Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.
(D) A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
(E) A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems."
Adam Lanza met at least three out of the five above criteria to have been identified as an emotionally disturbed student.
Did Newtown’s public school system adequately meet Adam Lanza’s emotional disabilities needs or protect Adam Lanza from himself and others?
Many future Newtown lawsuits might focus on the question whether Adam Lanza received adequate special education services and whether Adam Lanza’s special education services fulfilled Connecticut’s public education system’s duty “to provide opportunities for all students to achieve these statewide student goals (motivation to learn, mastery of basic skills, acquisition of knowledge, competence in life skills and understanding society’s values).”
Other noteworthy legal considerations for future Newtown lawsuits might include:
- According to the Connecticut State Department of Education’s information brochure, parents (in this case mainly Nancy Lanza) was not the only person who could see Adam Lanza’s school records and who would have been aware of any dangers that Adam Lanza posed to himself and others. “School district employees can access your child’s education records when they need to do so in order to perform their job responsibilities. If your child transfers to a different school district, the employees of the new district also have access to your child’s school records. In addition, school districts are required by law to share information with certain government agencies, including the State Department of Education, and to organizations conducting studies for, or on behalf of, educational agencies or institutions. The school district is required to keep a record of persons, other than school district employees, who access your child’s school records.”
- Was Adam Lanza ever placed into an IAES? Richard Novia’s comment that Adam Lanza did not seem to be able to “to feel physical or psychological pain in the same way as classmates” and that "If that boy would've burned himself, he would not have known it or felt it physically" must have been based on some insights of Adam Lanza potential of hurting himself or others. “The school district may place your child in an interim alternative education setting (IAES) for up to 45 school days, whether or not the behavior is found to be a manifestation of your child’s disability, if your child: Carries a weapon to school or a school function, or is in possession of a weapon in school or at a school function; Knowingly possesses or uses illegal drugs, or sells or solicits the sale of controlled substances while at school or a school function; or Inflicts serious bodily injury upon another person while at school, or at a school function. Additionally, a hearing officer may place your child in an IAES if the hearing officer determines that keeping your child in the current placement is substantially likely to result in an injury to your child or to others.”
- Was Adam Lanza allowed to leave public school at the age of 16 without any due process hearing? “Due process is a way of ensuring fairness in the decision-making process regarding your child. If you disagree with a proposed or refused action regarding your child’s education, you may initiate due process in order to resolve the disagreement. The due process hearing is a legal process in which a hearing officer appointed by the Due Process Unit of the Bureau of Special Education, State Department of Education, decides the resolution of a disagreement between you and the school district. A school district may request a due process hearing as well. Due process procedures include advisory opinions, hearings and expedited hearings. It has been reported that Adam Lanza's mother Nancy Lanza was in disagreement with Newtown's school. Did she have a due process hearing?
- In Adam Lanza’s case, a due process hearing or even an expedited hearing would have been appropriate because of Adam Lanza’s qualifications as an “emotionally disturbed” student under IDEA. “An expedited hearing is a hearing that is held quickly so that a situation can be addressed without undue delay. In an expedited hearing, the hearing must occur within 20 school days of the date the hearing is requested and the hearing officer must make his or her decision within ten school days of the close of the hearing. The parties involved in the hearing must exchange information to be presented as evidence at least two business days prior to an expedited hearing. An expedited hearing will be arranged when the following occurs: The school district thinks that keeping your child in the current placement is highly likely to result in injury to your child or to others.
- Did Adam Lanza receive a PPT meeting before the age of 16 and before leaving Newtown’s public school system to go to college? “At the annual PPT meeting following your child’s fifteenth birthday (or younger, if determined appropriate) you will begin to discuss transition planning from school to adult life. Your child must be invited to this PPT meeting, and all subsequent PPT meetings until he/she either graduates from high school with a regular diploma or until the end of the school year in which he or she turns 21. At the same PPT, your child’s IEP will be planned and must include: • Appropriate measurable postsecondary goals based upon ageappropriate transition assessments related to training, education, employment and, where appropriate, independent living skills; and • The transition services needed to assist the child in reaching those goals. The term 'transition services' is defined as a coordinated set of activities for a child with a disability that: • Is designed to be within a results-orientated process, that is focused on improving the academic and functional achievement of the child with a disability to facilitate the child’s movement from school to post-school activities, including postsecondary education; vocational education; integrated employment (including supported employment); continuing and adult education; adult services; independent living or community participation; • Is based on the individual child’s needs, strengths, interests and preferences; and • Includes instruction, related services, community experiences, the development of employment and other post-school adult living objectives and, if appropriate, acquisition of daily living skills and provision of a functional vocational evaluation. Before your child graduates high school with a regular diploma or completes the school year in which your child turns 21, the school district must provide your child with a summary of his or her academic achievement and functional performance. This Summary of Performance (SOP) must include recommendations on how to assist your child in meeting his or her post-high school goals. The SOP must be completed during the final year of your child’s high school education.” Adam Lanza left Newtown's high school at the age of 16, was not able to continue higher education level courses for an extended period of time at the university level without a PPT, and was left to do what?
Why all of this information?
As the parent information brochure shows, the Connecticut State Department of Education Bureau of Special Education, IDEA, and the federal government have all necessary laws and regulations available to protect children like Adam Lanza from themselves and from others.
Most special education teachers, teachers, and principals are aware of those laws and regulations. Adam Lanza’s mother Nancy Lanza was a mother trying to do the best she could do based on her experience and knowledge. But Nancy Lanza was not a special education teacher.
Sandy Hook’s massacre could have been avoided if at any point during Adam Lanza's life the laws and regulations provided by the Connecticut State Department of Education, Bureau of Special Education would have been adequately applied.
For some special education teachers, teachers, or principals familiar with emotional disabilities it is quite evident that Adam Lanza was a walking “time bomb.”
Unfortunately, too many educators are still unfamiliar with emotional disabilities. It appears that only more Newtown lawsuits will be able to shed the details on why one individual could inflict so much harm on himself and others without being able to be stopped despite so many laws and regulations in place.
However, will any of the Newtown lawsuits bring back the lives of 28 people? No.
Will any of the money gained by the $100 million Newtown lawsuit or any other future Newtown lawsuits really make a difference and improve “school security” and “a world that's safe” as claimed by New Haven attorney Irving Pinsky? No. (Except for the lawyers who’ll make tons of money.)
Not more Newtown lawsuits but the education, understanding, and awareness of the special learning needs of students with emotional disabilities and their lethal potential is what is needed in order to prevent future Sandy Hook massacres.
More special education articles by this author …
Emotional disabilities in children: A silent killer