The Killingly Board of Education in Connecticut has been under fire since March 2022 when it refused to sign a five-year contract to install a federally funded school-based health center (SBHC) that would provide mental health services to minors without parental consent.
Instead, the board contracted for a similar center, but with month-to-month terms and parental consent required for treatment — and without federal grants or the rules they might impose.
The board’s rejection of the initial proposal, approved by the superintendent, led to the board and its members being slammed in local media, personally attacked, and subjected to a state investigation and a lawsuit.
Kelly Martin, vice chair of the Killingly Board of Education, and Sheila Matthews, founder of the nonprofit AbleChild, shared the board’s story with CHD.TV host Stephanie Locricchio on Monday’s “Good Morning CHD.”
Next week, the Killingly board faces a hearing, following a report last month — by attorney Michael McKeon, director of legal and governmental affairs for the Connecticut State Department of Education — criticizing the board’s actions.
The Killingly board rejected McKeon’s report as a “position statement,” and underscored the work they have taken to support Killingly children’s mental health.
The recent push by the U.S. federal government to rapidly expand the use of SBHCs across the country — largely justified as an intervention into a mental health crisis among young people —- has critics concerned children will receive unnecessary or unwanted medical interventions without their parents’ knowledge or consent.
Martin told Locricchio the controversy began when the school superintendent presented the school board with a proposal to put an SBHC in the school. The proposal provided only one possible service provider: Generations Family Health Center, which explicitly provided services without parental consent.
But many board members objected.
“The problem was never [with providing] mental health treatment,” Martin said. “We recognized that post-COVID children really, really need help. The problem was with the parents never being informed that the child was going to be treated.”
She added, “And that was something that was important to us — the parent doesn’t need to know what’s being discussed, [but they do] need to know that the child has a problem and is being treated and that they can actually keep a watchful eye on that child.”
The board voted down the SBHC, and a battle began. A group of parents represented by attorney Andrew A. Feinstein filed a complaint against the board seeking to overturn its vote, Martin said.
Once the board turned down the initial proposal, it interviewed alternative mental health services providers and set up a mental health clinic in the school where parents must opt-in to their child’s treatment.
But the state is not happy with that, she said. “They want that very first option, so it’s been an uphill battle since the lawsuit was actually filed,” she said.
Martin described the blowback:
“We have had people attack us constantly for the last two years. They’re making accusations that we don’t care about the mental health of children, [that] we don’t care about children at all. They’ve accused us of being racist, of being white supremacists. You name it, we’ve been accused of it.
“It’s been a very long two years. It all started when we started to give a little bit of pushback on some of these things.”
She said the group of people attacking them is small, “but they’re very vocal, they’re very loud,” and their actions have made board supporters afraid to speak out.
Superintendent and attorney suing the board have conflicts of interest
The school board investigated the origins of the proposal and found the superintendent had put in a request for funding a mental health clinic without ever informing board members.
Martin said over the last few decades, power over schools has slowly been transferred from school boards to superintendents.
Because the clinic was to be grant-funded, they combed through the school board history to find which board policies had been changed to give power over grants to the superintendent — and reversed them.
In this case, the grant was part of ESSER II funding (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) — $54.3 billion made available by the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021 — with the requirement that it be awarded by September 2023.
She said the argument being made publicly and to parents was that this was a completely free, grant-funded clinic that would provide children with immediate assistance — so it was seen as a great idea all around.
But the clinics aren’t actually free, Martin pointed out. Once the grant ends, the cost burden shifts to the district.
Martin said children with mental health issues, of course, do need support as quickly as possible, but the only proposal made was for a clinic with a contract that was five years long and no parental consent.
She said the board wanted to review a variety of proposals, but they were only given that one.
In its investigations, the board also learned the superintendent sat on the board of the Northeast Early Childhood Council together with members of Generations — the one clinic he brought to the board.
After the board interviewed several other proposed clinics and selected one, she said Feinstein and a dissenting board member launched a media campaign smearing the clinic they selected, accusing it of bending to the board’s political agenda, which it implied was right-wing or “tea party.”
The selected clinic pulled out of the agreement with the board for fear its reputation would be ruined.
The board finally found another school-based mental health care provider, but the entire process dragged on for two years.
Little school board ‘up against Goliath’
Matthews, who works on national issues surrounding children’s mental health, became involved when she saw news stories that gave a disproportionate amount of negative attention to one small school board.
She began researching the issue and found that Feinstein is a registered lobbyist in the state of Connecticut and has received payments from a law firm dedicated to mergers and acquisitions in Big Pharma and to government grants that fund school-based clinics.
Matthews explained how government funding is funneled to different behavioral health vendors to set up clinics or provide medications, which make millions from children’s suffering.
Matthews and Martin said the school assessed students’ mental health by having them fill out anonymous surveys in school, without parental knowledge or consent, which is a common practice.
The surveys ask serious questions — such as whether the children are experiencing suicidal ideation — without any follow-up.
Instead of addressing students’ mental health, the questionnaires are simply evidence-gathering mechanisms to justify funding requests, Matthews said.
Both women encouraged parents to talk to their children about these surveys and to exercise their parental rights to opt out of them. Mathews’ organization AbleChild provides a sample letter parents can use to do this.
According to Matthews, $258 billion has come into the states from these ESSER funds overall. States are compelled to distribute the funds quickly before deadlines pass, but involving parents and community organizations slows down that process, she said.
“And these vendors smell the money,” she added.
Matthews, who studies how federal funds are directed to distribute potentially dangerous medications to children — particularly among children in foster care and on Medicaid — said the funds are lining the pockets of industry, not supporting children’s mental health.
“These block grants, this is the Achilles heel we have to take a look at. We have to look at these behavioral health vendors that have already set up shop in our school system.”
She said at minimum there needs to be a way to track the grants awarded so that parents can research what is happening in their schools and make informed decisions.
“This little town in Connecticut, they are up against Goliath. Okay? They are up against the drug companies. They are up against the behavioral health vendors. They’re up against the state. They’re up against the federal government. They are swimming in, I want to say, an ocean of corruption when it comes to these grants.”
Martin said the next step in the school board’s case is an inquiry hearing at the state building in Hartford on Oct. 11 at 10 a.m. It is open to the public.
Locricchio appealed to CHD.TV’s audience to show support for the board, especially because local supporters have been scared into silence by the public attacks.
“We would love to see some of our CHD [Children’s Health Defense] supporters there to stand with Kelly and Sheila and all the people that are involved in this because it could be your school district tomorrow that’s going through it,” Locricchio said. “And we know that we are so much stronger together.”
Brenda Baletti Ph.D. is a reporter for The Defender. She wrote and taught about capitalism and politics for 10 years in the writing program at Duke University. She holds a Ph.D. in human geography from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master's from the University of Texas at Austin.
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