Reconciling the Tragedy of Newtown, CT

Connecticut School ShootingThis is one of the most difficult posts I’ve ever had to write, but the challenges it presents to me are nothing compared to what the families of Adam Lanza and his shooting victims continue to suffer, as well as their communities. Maybe I’m feeling a touch of survivor’s guilt. Unlike the dead, I still have the ability to soldier on.

When I initially heard the news, it was over brunch with a colleague and our mutual client. My colleague saw the news on his smart phone and let out an audible, emotional gasp. When he told us what had happened, I didn’t feel anything at all; it was just information and wasn’t real to me, yet.

I was still trying to assimilate everything that had happened in the IEP meeting we’d all been in earlier that morning on the tail of a grueling week that had left me already emotionally exhausted. A mass murder on top of that was evidently more than what my nervous system could handle at the time. Since then, however, I’ve been following the news and the weight of the situation has sunk in quite deeply, now. I can’t read about the victims without tearing up.

An event like this hits me from every side because I have devoted my career to protecting children’s educational and civil rights. Among those is certainly the right to attend a safe learning environment that fosters their development and growth.

On the other hand, the evidence that has been publicized thus far reveals that Adam Lanza was disabled, possibly with a personality disorder, possibly with an autism spectrum disorder. The latter sounds more likely based on the descriptions given of him, though unless someone who has actually diagnosed him is permitted to disclose his confidential patient information, we’ll never really know.

What the reports from those who encountered Adam confirm was that he was socially awkward and withdrawn and that he evidently didn’t process physical pain the ways other people do, which put him at risk of unwittingly hurting himself during high-risk activities, such as soldering electronics. That sounds a lot like a sensory integration problem to me, which is not uncommon among those challenged by autism, along with the social skills deficits he was also reported to suffer.

Regardless of his diagnoses, it was clear to the outside observers who encountered him that he was impaired. And, while none of the lay people interviewed by the media thus far can point to anything that would have tipped them off that this atrocity was going to happen, we are not privy to what any therapists or others who interacted with him on a professional level may have had reason to fear from him.

Even if no one saw this coming, the fact that Adam remained socially impaired into adulthood reflects a lack of adequate intervention when he was younger, particularly given the peer-reviewed research regarding what works with children challenged by autism. The reports from those who encountered him in high school describe a young man who couldn’t relate to other people, would engage in elopement, and experienced meltdowns at school that “required” his mother to come to school and help calm him back down. The Associated Press described these latter experiences as “… crises only a mother could solve …” which reflects an utter failure with respect to school-based behavioral interventions and a gross lack of understanding regarding parental ability versus the mandated duties of the public education system.

I’ve lost count of the number of students I’ve represented whose schools have chosen to call parents away from their jobs in the middle of the day – and parents who have lost their jobs as a result – because it was less costly to the local education agencies to call the parents to come intervene than to staff these students’ programs with expert personnel. Unless the parent has a BCBA, the parent is not the person to call when behavioral problems occur and it is unethical and unlawful for school districts to shift that burden onto parents.

The special education advocate in me finds this outrageous and inexcusable. Just because no one necessarily saw Adam’s potential for murder when he was a public education student with special needs is no excuse for having failed to serve him when the opportunity presented itself to do so. When given the opportunity to prevent this from happening, nothing appropriately effective was done. The burden was shifted to his mother, who ultimately became his first murder victim. Clearly, this was not a crisis that only a non-expert, gun-collecting mother could solve.

While I’ve yet to see evidence that Adam was on an IEP while in public school, based on the descriptions given of him in the media by those who knew him at the time, if he wasn’t on an IEP, it was the world’s biggest child find violation. I have to believe he was on an IEP when he was a public school student.

Presuming that, the snapshot rule prevents the failure of a special education program from being judged with the benefit of hindsight when it comes to evaluating the denial of a FAPE. An IEP offer has to be judged according to what was known or should have been known at the time it was offered.

But, we’re not taking Adam’s case to due process, here. There may be a due process case on Adam’s behalf in all of this, but I can’t think of anything it would resolve, now. At this point, we’re left examining a situation that was long in the making to understand what should have been known but apparently wasn’t so we can better anticipate these kinds of things and prevent them from recurring.

We can’t turn back time and reclaim the lives Adam took. It would be an enormous disservice to all those who died to not examine this situation for every kind of clue we can find that will help us prevent this kind of thing from ever happening again. And, that includes the special education element.

As I have said repeatedly, special education failures have far-reaching consequences and sometimes it’s many years after those failures have occurred for the consequences to come to fruition. Nothing happens in a vacuum and special education failures impact all of us, not just the individual students who fail to receive appropriate benefit or the families that struggle to help them function in life. I take no pleasure or comfort in being proven right about this, now.

The importance of providing students with social skills deficits and emotional health needs with effective intervention isn’t a bunch of liberal, touchy-feely, kumbaya, mumbo-jumbo. Teaching students how to successfully interact with other people is just as much a part of preparing them for adulthood as the core academics and school is the setting most conducive to that kind of instruction.

There are old-school purists who still advocate that the only thing the public schools should be responsible for teaching are the core academics, but that denies the reality of human life. School is a social environment, just as the workplace is a social environment. You can’t compartmentalize the human experience. Education has to be holistic in approach or you end up with fragmented people who learned some of what they need but not everything.

It’s not enough that we pass kids with special needs through the system on the basis of academics alone. Adam Lanza is sufficient evidence of that, as are the countless individuals with special needs who, with appropriate intervention, would be taxpayers rather than tax-dependents right now.

Had Adam not taken his own life and had been arrested, tried, and convicted, the costs of his incarceration or, were he to have been found mentally incompetent, institutionalization would have quickly outstripped what an appropriate special education program would have cost back when he was in school. I shudder at the thought of certain conservatives believing that Adam’s suicide at the end of his killing spree was the solution to expending public funds on his behalf either way.

For those people who can only look at special education issues from the perspective of dollars and cents, it still doesn’t add up. The additional loss of 27 other lives, some of whom were taxpayers and most of whom the rest would have become, does not cost-justify denying Adam a FAPE when he was eligible for one even if Adam took his own costs of life-long tax-dependency out of the picture by killing himself at the young age of 20.

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight at any IEPs Adam had doesn’t change anything, now. The lesson we need to take from this is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We’re not always going to see the long-term consequences of failing to serve a student with special needs until it’s way too late, which means we need to do right by all our special needs kids all the time in order to plug the holes that make things like the Newtown shootings possible.

Rendering a FAPE to all eligible students is simply the right thing to do, not only for the students with special needs, but also for their families and communities. The students and staff of Sandy Hook Elementary School did not deserve to suffer the consequences of Adam’s prior lack of adequate intervention. And, frankly, neither did Adam. We, as a society, failed them all. And, we, as a society, have to clean up the mess that we’ve made and prevent it from happening again.

10 thoughts on “Reconciling the Tragedy of Newtown, CT

  1. Jody

    Thank you for enduring through your own pain and typing through tears. You give voice where many of us are painfully unable to produce. Paralyzed, lumps in our throats, dizzying questions, emotion driven blame… The horror of the Newtown tragedy has heads and hearts spinning. Your ability to contribute accurate insight and solution through clear communication even in these most complicated, emotional situations is invaluable. Thank you for stopping the spinning. Thank you for moving us forward.

    1. Anne M. Zachry Post author

      Thank you, Jody, for articulating what I was feeling even better than I could. I don’t know that I stopped the spinning for anyone else, but writing about this horrible situation helped me re-orient myself to what I need to be doing as an advocate.

  2. Joan Santon

    Thanks for this position post Anne. I have been thinking the same thing. Effective intervention could have changed this outcome.

    1. Anne M. Zachry Post author


      Thank you for your feedback. I know I’m not the only thinking “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” I’ve been hearing it from others, as well.


  3. Barry Adkins

    Thank you for your well-considered response to the tragedy in Connecticut. This has been a difficult time for me also from multiple perspectives – religious, professional, and personally (as a father). That said, I do want to state my concern that the perspective in your response seems to be too limited to me. Looking at Special Education as the panacea for handling the needs of students has unintended consequences for both the students and the school. This is because I agree with your statement that nothing happens in a vacuum. Education occurs in a moving, flowing environment that is made up of many parts. I believe strongly that it is that environment that needs to be the level of intervention. ALL the school parts, and I mean ALL, need to be involved in the teaching of our children. To categorize students as needing an IEP or not has ramifications for the way students are perceived, managed, and corrected. We need to look at students with special needs as just that- students (first) with special needs (second). Otherwise, they simply become something “different” and start to be someone else’s responsibility. They essentially are “special needs” or “special ed”. That process is given “positive reinforcement” because it relieves regular educators and administrators of responsibility. However, it also changes the way the student’s self-image develops AND the way they see their relationship to the school environment itself. They nearly always interpret their placement as an indication that something is wrong with them. (Don’t believe me? Ask a late adolescent going through an identity crisis.)

    In short, I advocate for merging the special education process/intervention set of procedures and options into regular education so that the parts are complimentary and integrative rather than segregating. Each and every student should be viewed as “special” and taught with an eye toward individualization of whatever structure or intervention they need- behavioral, emotional, or educational.

    1. Anne M. Zachry Post author


      Thank you, first of all, for your feedback. I don’t think you and I are that far apart, philosophically. I have to point out, though, that our site is devoted to special education issues, so our content is special education-oriented. I agree that a holistic approach is appropriate. It’s my personal philosophy that ALL students should be receiving individualized educations – not just those society labels as having something “wrong” with them – and that if every child were supported in all areas of need, the world would be a much better place. But, the system isn’t set up that way. At least not yet. In the meantime, there is no reason for a child who is obviously eligible for individualized support to fail to receive it and fall through the cracks. Our kids generally spend 6 hours a day in school, more time than they generally spend in any other setting where therapeutic remedies can be provided. It is the opportunity most ripe for intervention. So, while I agree that special education isn’t a panacea, it is still nonetheless the “first line of defense” when it comes to tackling societal issues involving children with special needs. All of this is food for thought as we try to wrap our brains around what happened and what we should do moving forward, along with tons of other pieces of information that come from the relevant domains other than special ed. I am leaving those pieces to the people who specialize in them and sticking to what I know for my own contributions. I should have made that clear with my original post, so thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify. Your points are well taken.


      1. Jody

        Such a display of amazing grace. May this dialogue between Barry and yourself serve as example and encouragement for all of us to follow suit. This type of legitimate, intelligent, mature conversation is the only way we’ll really make any progress.


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