Applying Mental Health Law Could Save Lives

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Since the tragic events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., there is a new level of engagement by students and an energy among policymakers to enact policies to help prevent a future occurrence. The continuing major fight over gun laws is capturing the attention it should.

As a former Connecticut legislator and resident, I found it inconceivable that there was no significant federal action on gun laws after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Instead, proposals met resistance. Now, as the president and others begin to backtrack from their initial support for new laws following the Parkland shootings, I fear that current federal efforts may run into similar resistance.

But resistance in one area shouldn’t prevent action in others. Whenever a mass shooting occurs, there are some who want to talk about mental health. I’m willing to have that conversation — because there is something we can do in mental health to help prevent future acts of violence. We need to commit fully to a law that has overwhelming bipartisan support and is already on the books.

It’s called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, know as IDEA. It was enacted in 1975, and mandates a “free,” “appropriate,” individualized education program — in the “least restrictive” environment — for every child with a disability that affects success in school.


Nationwide, more than 6.6 million children aged 3 through 21 with physical, developmental and other disabilities benefit from this law.

But there’s one group being neglected under IDEA — children with serious mental illnesses. Half of all mental illnesses emerge by the age of 14. According to National Institute of Mental Health data, this means that 22 percent of all children will have a mental disorder with “severe impairment” by the time they are adolescents.

That’s roughly 14 million children and young adults. But in 2016, only 347,000 children and young adults nationwide received special-education services because of an “emotional disturbance” — the term schools use.

That number has declined for 15 straight years.

When students are attacked in school, public officials and safety officers should never neglect the danger but respond immediately because of the severe consequences of inaction. What is less obvious are the severe consequences when neglect occurs over years. Students may be both bullied and bullies, be exposed to traumatic events and begin to manifest the signs of serious mental illnesses.

The way we respond — or fail to respond — makes things worse.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, kids with disabilities are twice as likely to be suspended or expelled from school as are kids without disabilities — especially when the disabilities manifest behaviorally. I’ve been there. My adult son — who has lived with a serious mental illness since he was 5 years old — was repeatedly suspended and expelled from schools when his symptoms flared up.

When instead of providing an appropriate alternative educational placement we expel 17-year-old students with clear histories of impairment and leave them to fend for themselves in adult education — as appears to have happened in Parkland — we are engaging in a form of neglect. We are not taking care of them, or of the people around them.

All too often, the reason boils down to money.

When the federal government created the special-education mandate under IDEA, it built in a “cost shift” to the states and local school districts that is estimated at $17 billion. It also capped the percentage of students who could be covered under special education at 12 percent of the total student body.

Operating under those constraints, neither states nor school districts have an incentive to identify and pay for kids with mental health needs, especially when the “least restrictive” placement might be out-of-district treatment costing tens of thousands of dollars. Expulsion may be fiscally prudent, but is it worth the cost?

Could we have prevented the Parkland tragedy? The answer is, sadly, staring us in the face. Quite possibly — if the student had not been expelled but placed in appropriate treatment.

For that to happen, we need to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Paul Gionfriddo is president and CEO of Mental Health America. He is the author of “Losing Tim: How Our Health and Education Systems Failed My Son with Schizophrenia,” and he was a member of the Connecticut House of Representatives from 1979 until 1990.