School Climate & Safety

Sandy Hook Shooter’s Needs Went Unmet by Schools and Parents, Report Concludes

By Evie Blad — November 21, 2014 4 min read
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A review of the mental health and educational history of Newtown, Conn., school shooter Adam Lanza paints a picture of repeated missed opportunities—by schools, relatives and mental health professionals—to intervene in a downward spiral of isolation, emotional instability, and mental illness.

Lanza killed his mother in December 2012 before gunning his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he killed 20 children and six adults before committing suicide.

Though there were early indications of Lanza’s preoccupation with violence, demonstrated in “extremely graphic writings,” and though mental health professionals sounded the alarm of various mental health issues, his parents and educators did not adequately intervene, said the report, released Friday by the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate, which is tasked with reviewing child deaths to draw policy conclusions.

The report stresses that “no direct line of causation” can be drawn from the lapses in adequate treatment and Lanza’s ultimate violent acts. It includes recommendations for universal screening for mental health and developmental impairments for children from birth to age 21 and better care coordination between community, educational, and health care organizations.

“Schools may not be equipped to provide, or even to import, comprehensive behavioral health or developmental supports to children, and will need significant support to ensure adequate expertise and related services for children with highly specialized needs,” the report concludes.

Lanza, referred to as “AL” in the report, received minimal mental health observations at school. His parents “may not have understood the depth or implications of his disabilities,” which, at various stages in his life, included obsessive-compulsive tendancies, anxiety, anorexia, a fascination with violence, and autism spectrum disorder, the report says.

“Records indicate that the school system cared about AL’s success but also unwittingly enabled [his mother’s] preference to accommodate and appease AL through the educational plan’s lack of attention to social-emotional support, failure to provide related services, and agreement to AL’s plan of independent study and early graduation at age 17.”

Lanza’s schools did not properly classify his disabilities and “did not adhere to applicable guidelines regarding education for students with either Autism Spectrum Disorders or Emotional Disturbance,” the report says. The district placed Lanza on “homebound” status through his individual education plan in 8th grade, providing “little surveillance” of the year-long placement, the document says.

The Yale Child Study Center evaluated Lanza at age 14 and “offered prescient observations that withdrawal from school and a strategy of accommodating AL, rather than addressing his underlying needs, would lead to a deteriorating life of dysfunction and isolation.”

Despite this, Lanza’s mother catered to his resistance to medication, and he “completed high school through a combination of independent study, tutoring, and classes at a local college,” the report says.

“In the course of AL’s entire life, minimal mental health evaluation and treatment (in relation to his apparent need) was obtained,” the report concludes. “Of the couple of providers that saw AL, only one—the Yale Child Study Center—seemed to appreciate the gravity of AL’s presentation, his need for extensive mental health and special education supports, and the critical need for medication to ease his obsessive-compulsive symptoms.”

One error may have been a narrow focus on one classification, the report says.

“By asking special education teams to specify a child’s eligibility under a specific (or single) label—meaning what is the ‘right’ disability—there is a tendency for interventions to focus on only one aspect of a child’s learning and development. This focus on ‘primary disability’ may mitigate against a truly comprehensive support system for the child.”

Lanza lived with his mother, and the two communicated very little in the months before the shootings. Lanza planned the attack, perhaps out of a fear of leaving his “comfort zone,” after his mother said she planned to move out of the Sandy Hook area of Newtown, the report says.

A report released by State’s Attorney Stephen Sedensky III in November 2013 found no clear motive, but it did note findings that suggest Lanza had a fascination with mass killings, including a computer game called School Shooting investigators found in his home.

The Office of the Child Advocate report’s recommendations also include:

    • Mental health providers should provide sustained support for families rather than “episodic or periodic” care.
    • The health care system must address the role of social stigma and denial of illness in receiving adequate care.
    • Increased public access to supportive services, therapeutic care, and education for families dealing with mental illness.
    • Schools should have a greater flexibility to coordinate and fund mental health and therapuetic services to meet students’ needs.
    • Schools should be sure they are evaluating children in all areas, including social-emotional needs.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.