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Still learning the lessons of the Sandy Hook shootings
Two years after the Dec. 14, 2012, school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that left 20 students and six staff members dead, the complete childhood educational and psychological profile of the disturbed 20-year old shooter, Adam Lanza, has been published by the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate, the state agency that oversees child welfare.

Two years after the Dec. 14, 2012, school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that left 20 students and six staff members dead, the complete childhood educational and psychological profile of the disturbed 20-year old shooter, Adam Lanza, has been published by the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate, the state agency that oversees child welfare.

The report was published late last month, leading up to the Dec. 14 second anniversary of the shooting.The OCA pieced together the detailed picture of Lanza’s psychological and educational profile, with access to many documents and details not previously available.

The OCA report focuses on how to anticipate mental health needs in the school system and to get health professionals and educators to better communicate on special needs.

Sarah Eagan, the Connecticut state child advocate, was appointed to that office in August 2013 and was primarily responsible for the report. We spoke with Eagan about what the Sandy Hook tragedy teaches us about how educators should approach similar cases.

Question: One of your conclusions was that the school focused on his academic readiness but overlooked his social and emotional needs, right?

Eagan: That’s exactly right. We talk repeatedly in the report about that very issue, very early on in his life.

Question: What are the policy implications of that disconnect, looking back and looking forward?

Eagan: It’s what we know of all children: They go to school secondarily to get their education, and primarily to socialize, to be part of a group, to be in sports, or in band. It’s part of who we are as social beings. Social and emotional support is tightly interwoven with academics. With Adam Lanza, that was missed so many times along the way.

Question: Are there statutory changes you think are needed? More research? What is your takeaway at the Office of the Child Advocate?

Eagan: There are lots of recommendations embedded in the report. We talk about early intervention coordination, making sure we are all communicating and on the same page. We need more communication between service providers, from pediatric and psychiatric to education. There is a lot of low hanging fruit in practices and best policy. We need to look at how many children we have on homebound status, and think more about what it means for kids who are excluded from the educational mainstream. We need to take a good look at those kids, and see what can be done to get them back into school for social and emotional growth, and peer relationships are critical.

Question: What I did not hear you say at all there was that we need more oversight of the nuclear family. I know that’s the fear that skeptics might have. But you don’t seem to be voicing anything that would stoke those fears.

Eagan: I think we’re saying that there are services and supports where kids are, and that we need to be doing a better job of coordination. I don’t think that there needs to be anything more intrusive. I think if we just had those conversations, and talk to each other. What is your treatment looking like? What are you seeing?

Question: You seem to be saying there were plenty of signals if we had processed them properly, but we don’t necessarily need more tentacles to get those signals?

Eagan: That is absolutely right. I think we do have plenty of places to pick up those signals, whether it’s pediatricians, or psychiatrists, or schools find that a family is in crisis and isn’t doing what’s necessary to cope with it. We have child welfare policies in place that can help move things along.

Question: Adam was apparently not the only person with psychological challenges in this story?

Eagan: I think it’s clear that his mother had been struggling herself. Some of those struggles were common to parents who have kids with complex disabilities, which can generate fear and confusion over how to get through the day. These emotions are common in the circumstances, but I think Mrs. Lanza may have had her own unique emotional challenges.

Question: We know the parents were divorced. How active was the father during these critical years?

Eagan: In ninth grade there is active involvement in the father, attendance at school meetings, corresponding and emailing with personnel. By 10th grade you don’t see that anymore. And that may be because of some of the progress they made, and everyone felt that he was doing well.

Question: And then he regressed?

Eagan: Later in 10th grade he started struggling more, then the mother and the school team agreed on a plan to put him back on independent study. In 11th grade he said he wanted to graduate early, so they assisted him in acquiring enough credits that he could graduate at 17 through independent study and taking some classes at a local college. And he never came back to high school.

Question: Was this a mistake that should have been seen at the time?

Eagan: He was a special-education student, entitled to individualized and multidisciplinary planning, which would’ve addressed social and emotional needs, career readiness, independent living skills, all kinds of things. And he was entitled to stay on that education plan until age 21, if needed to acquire those skills. I’m not saying he would’ve wanted to do that. But to look at a youth with that many needs, and to see him exit both high school and special education at age 17 is quite a gap in terms of what he could have been provided.

Question: Adam Lanza was “homebound” but not home-schooled. That’s a distinction that is lost on most people, and a myth persists that he was home-schooled. Could you explain the difference?

Eagan: Homebound schooling is when a child with severe disabilities is unable to attend school even with accommodations. A homebound child is then supposed to receive instruction and oversight from the school. Home-schooling does not require any oversight or services from the local school.

Question: Your report suggests there is some culpability on the part of the school for dropping the ball on this, right?

Eagan: Certain things are supposed to happen when you’re on homebound, and some of those things did not occur. In eighth grade he was on homebound. I think we were critical, and pretty openly in the report. He never should have been placed on homebound. The recommendation [from the school] was strange. The acquiescence to it was strange. The lack of oversight was inappropriate. And the duration of it, the entire school year, everything about that was wrong.

Question: Where did the family come down on these decisions?

Eagan: The whole family seems to have agreed to the plan. The father may not have been there, but there is no indication that he didn’t agree. This was the plan that Adam Lanza wanted. But there is no indication that the school offered a different vision. So the school didn’t offer a different vision, and the family didn’t know or didn’t understand or didn’t want anything different. The whole purpose of the early graduation was so that he could go to college early, but that didn’t happen, and from 2010 to 2012 he became a recluse.

Question: Was there any indication in your research about whether the credits for that early graduation were legitimate? Is there evidence that the academic milestones in his 9th grade year were met?

Eagan: It’s hard for us to say. We raise questions about his work. But he was definitely doing work. Should he have been on an accelerated credit acquisition plan? I think reasonable minds can differ.