Interim School Superintendent John Reed knows there is a natural tendency for residents to believe rapidly declining local school enrollment in recent years translates into expectations of downtrending across all aspects of local school district operations.
But in the months prior to the Sandy Hook tragedy, and especially in the months since 12/14, Dr Reed has been seeing an alarming increase in crisis interventions within the district, as well as referrals to an emergency mobile psychiatric team for all Newtown youths age 18 and under.
He told The Newtown Bee in a recent interview that in the 12 months following the Sandy Hook shootings, emergency calls for psychiatric response from Wellmore, Inc — a regional mental health agency serving Newtown — has increased 80 percent.
“We’re in an environment that is focusing on the decline in enrollment, but some things aren’t declining and that should be concerning to the schools and our community,” he said. “The fact that the town is applying for millions of dollars in assistance shows how hard we are working to respond to the tragedy at both a personal and community levels.”
Between December 14, 2011, and December 14, 2012, Dr Reed said the district activated Wellmore’s crisis response team 45 times. That request for emergency response accelerated to 81 calls in the 12 months following 12/14.
Those requests peaked in October 2013 when Wellmore responded to more than three calls per week across the community. Graphing the trend, Dr Reed illustrated that in December of 2011, the community was registering a little more than two calls per month on average, and by December 2013, that average trended up to almost eight calls per month.
And those calls keep coming.
District Related Crises
Within the district — with most reports coming from Newtown High and Middle Schools — Dr Reed said half of the crisis reports filed were for “suicidal ideation.”
The American Academy of Family Physicians notes that suicidal ideation is more common than completed suicide. A report on the academy’s website states that most patients with suicidal ideation do not ultimately commit suicide, but the extent of ideation incidents must be determined in each case, including the presence of a suicide plan and the patient’s means to commit suicide.
That detail is critical considering 11 percent of the local school district crisis reports involve students who have a plan to commit, or have actually attempted suicide. Another disturbing trend points to the 20 percent of district reports since January 2011 in which students are exhibiting some type of self-injury.
“There is just no well-defined guidebook for dealing with how to respond to a tragedy like Newtown has faced,” he said. “For the foreseeable future, I think we’ll be writing it.”
Dr Reed said he hopes that as the proposed school budget moves through its vetting process with local officials, that they will acknowledge the efforts that individuals and groups are making to respond to crises involving the community’s young people.
“We still have a long road to travel here,” he said. “All I’m looking for is the conveyed understanding that we are facing unique and important issues as a town and a school system.
“This budget cannot just be business as usual. While we can quantify enrollment trends, I can’t quantify potential issues individuals are facing, or will face in the future,” he added.
Another increasing trend Dr Reed noted in the face of overall declining enrollment is an increasing number of special education referrals.
“These represent requests for evaluations for placement in special education,” Dr Reed said.
Chasing The DRG
Since taking over as interim superintendent, Dr Reed has seen district referrals increase from just under eight percent against other schools in the statewide reference group of similar school districts or DRG, to about 9.3 percent today.
The average number of referrals among DRG cohorts is about 10 percent, he added.
Dr Reed said the increasing referrals for special education reflect a strategic effort to evaluate students to determine the services they need to succeed.
“The only increase in staffing you will see in this year’s budget [request] is in special education,” Dr Reed said. “It’s because we have the needs that require that staffing — that increase is justified.”
At the same time, the district is working to mitigate the related costs for special education services. That work includes long-range planning to either offer enhanced services in district to bring back town students who are currently in much more expensive outplacement situations, or to possibly co-op those services with other neighboring districts to reduce both placement and transportation costs.
Referrals to special education services have nearly doubled since July 2011, when on average, the district was referring about seven per month. Today, the Newtown district is referring an average of about 13 students per month.
In September 2013, those referrals spiked to about 22 students before dialing back to about 12 by year’s end, and edging back up to about 17 in January, according to documents Dr Reed provided to The Bee.
Responding to a request from the newspaper, Dr Reed also provided spending data for special education services during the past decade. The amount of tax dollars devoted to special education spending went from about $5.2 million or 9 percent of the overall school budget in 2005, to a request for about $8.4 million in the upcoming fiscal year — increasing the ratio of spending to 11.8 percent.
The largest increase in special education allocations as a percentage of the district budget during the past decade occurred between 2011 and 2013 when spending increased from $6.5 million to $8.1 million.