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Sandy Hook Advisory Commission members (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

The Sandy Hook Advisory Commission discussed controversial changes to the oversight of troubled home-schooled children Tuesday in its draft recommendations on mental health.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy created the group more than a year and a half ago in response to the murders of 20 school children and six educators at an elementary school in Newtown. He charged the panel— made up of experts in education, mental health, law enforcement, and emergency response — with making recommendations to reduce the risk of future tragedies.

The commission expects to have a final report within the next few weeks. On Tuesday its members reviewed their likely recommendations on mental health during a meeting in the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.

The draft proposals include requirements for individual plans for students with significant emotional or behavioral problems. The group is backing extending those requirements to troubled youths, whose parents have chosen to homeschool.

“Continuation of homeschooling should be contingent upon approval of [individualized education plans] and adequate progress as documented” in progress reports, Susan Schmeiser, a professor of mental health law at the University of Connecticut Law School, said as she summarized the proposal.

The group wants to give local special education directors the authority to approve or reject the individualized homeschool plans.

During the meeting, Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson, the commission’s chairman, said the proposal “sounds controversial.” It is a change from current requirements which are permissive. The parents of homeschooled children may choose to participate in school programing, but are not required to.

Dr. Harold Schwartz, head psychiatrist at Hartford Hospital’s Institute of Living, said the commission’s mental health team considered the proposal at length before recommending it.

“We believe it is very germaine,” he said. “The facts leading up to [the Newtown shooting] support the notion of the risk in not addressing the social, emotional, learning needs of children who may have significant needs in that area when homeschooled.”

Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old perpetrator of the 2012 shooting, was homeschooled for years and suffered from social and behavioral problems.

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Kathleen Flaherty (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

“The purpose of this recommendation is to make sure that kids get what kids need. If they have needs that aren’t being addressed, just because the parent has chosen to remove them from the school setting… their needs are still going to be met,” Kathleen Flaherty, staff attorney for Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut, said.
Although she supported the proposal, Patricia Keavney-Maruca, a member of the state Board of Education, said there could be some pushback from parents of homeschooled children.

“It may be hard to implement because parents may want to get their back up and say ‘You can’t make me do that if I’m homeschooling,” she said.

Jackson said the commission has drafted more than 100 pages on the subject of mental health alone. An endorsement of a broader understanding of mental health is a theme running throughout those pages, Schmeiser said.

“Mental health involves more than merely the absence of mental illness. Instead, it encompasses overall psychological, emotional, and social wellbeing so any effective system of care must take that broader perspective,” she said.

Schmeiser stressed that a diagnosis of mental illness alone makes a “very weak predictor” of violence. Other factors like substance abuse, histories of violence, economic disadvantage, youth, and the male gender have a greater correlation with a risk of violence.

The panel is recommending establishing risk assessment teams in schools to intervene if a student appears to be at risk. Jackson said the teams will include social workers, law enforcement officers, teachers and others.

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Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

“They can say ‘There’s something going on. This kid used to be in chorus, he used to play football, now he barely comes to school. Something is happening,’” Jackson said. “There needs to be a lot of people around who can create a structured or supportive environment for a student who may be in trouble.”

The commission found no consensus on some proposals it considered. For instance, Jackson said the panel would not be making any recommendations on involuntary outpatient commitment and changes to the confidentiality of mental health records.

“We won’t make a recommendation on involuntary outpatient commitment and one of the reasons is we don’t have the infrastructure to support it anyway. Now the judge says you’re going to do this outpatient program and there’s no place to do it. So it doesn’t even make sense here right now,” he said.

The panel is also recommending scaling back a provision within the gun control law passed last year by the legislature. The panel said the law “cast the net too wide” by including voluntary psychiatric hospitalization as grounds for deeming someone unsuitable to purchase a gun.

“The commission urges reconsideration of this provision in light of its potential to deter people from seeking needed care and to stigmatize in-patient treatment and those who seek it,” Schmeiser said.