Original article written by Ellen Barry for the New York Times.
The debate to convince the Connecticut school board to approve the placement of a school-based mental health clinic has divided Killingly, and its families, since January, when Robert J. Angeli, the superintendent of schools, presented a plan to open a state-funded mental health clinic in the high school.
Legislation to expand Connecticut’s network of school-based clinics had sailed through the legislature, passing the House by a vote of 143 to 4. When Mr. Angeli presented the plan before the town’s Board of Education, though, it ran into a solid wall of resistance, mostly on the grounds that it infringed on the rights of parents.
In March, Killingly’s board members rejected the plan by a vote of 6 to 3. After that, dozens of supporters of the clinic filed a complaint with Connecticut’s Board of Education, asking the state to “investigate and take corrective action.”
Since then, Killingly’s school board meetings have become a battleground for competing views on mental health, exposing divisions that are both partisan and generational. Teenagers have picketed on the well-manicured town common, where petunias grow around a memorial to the Civil War dead, with signs reading “14.7 PERCENT HAVE MADE A SUICIDE PLAN” and “TALK TO YOUR CHILDREN ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH.”
Standoffs like the one in Killingly are being watched apprehensively by mental health advocates. During the pandemic, the mental health of children shot to the top of the agenda for both political parties. School-based services, which studies suggest can significantly decrease suicidal behavior and substance abuse, have emerged as a first-line policy response.
Over the last year, legislators in more than 30 states have considered an expansion of school-based services, according to Inseparable, a mental health policy group, and eight states, including Connecticut, have passed legislation to do so. Before the services reach students, though, they must be embraced by American communities.
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