Nov 23

Adam Lanza – a tragedy of systemic proportion


Who can forget the shooting at Sandy Hook on December 14, 2012. Connecticut attorney Andrew Feinstein alerted the community to the November 21, 2014 report from Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate analyzing the numerous systemic failures in the Lanza case (referred to herein as Report).

This 108 page report is careful to point out that substantially contributing factors were Lanza’s personal choices and his access to firearms. However, the report details the systemic failures consisting of many “missed opportunities” for implementation of “interventions and services that could have and should have been delivered….” Report, p. 3 Parents, the report states, must be able to rely upon the available “helping systems,” i.e. school district personnel and pediatricians, as a safety net. Lack of communication between the healthcare system and school systems was identified as another significant gap. The adversarial atmosphere that parents generally experience when seeking help leads to “ill-informed” decisions “…that may miss critical opportunities to help children and their families.” Report, p. 21, 34.

These types of “missed opportunities” are certainly not unique to Adam Lanza. Those of us working with children classified under the IDEA – or who should be classified under the IDEA – see these systemic failures daily. Gaps in identification and treatment of any mental health issue impose costs on society, including unemployment, costly emergency services, poverty and children in need of public custodial care and, in rare cases, extreme violence.

    But he was making academic progress

The Report noted that focus on “curricular issues” distracted from response to the social-emotional issues. (emphasis in the original.) Report p. 64 The school also failed to recognize – or ignored – the need for psychiatric evaluation that was apparent as early as 5th grade, when Lanza’s creative writing work reflected a tendency towards abhorrent violence. Numerous other opportunities for intervention were lost as time marched on. As he became older, it became difficult to engage Lanza in therapeutic intervention. Once the school district was aware that Lanza had been identified as a student with autism spectrum disorder, transition and life-skills were never discussed. Lanza stopped communicating with his father completely and, as Lanza descended into extreme isolation, his mother did not reach out for help. Report at p. 97-8. But he achieved passing grades and even graduated high school a year early after being allowed to be placed on homebound instruction – which only reinforced Lanza’s isolation.

    The Importance of Evaluations

Even though there were indications of autism and other mental health issues as early as 5th grade, the only credible, detailed evaluation Lanza received was at age 14, 6 years prior to the Newtown shooting, by the Yale Child Study Center. Prophetically, that report warned that “a strategy of accommodating rather than addressing” Lanza’s social emotional difficulties “would lead to a life of dysfunction and isolation.” Report p. 7 That prediction was accurate because that is exactly what happened, and a strategy of accommodating rather than addressing any child’s social and emotional deficits is a sure path to a dysfunctional life resulting in greater costs to society. Interestingly, the report notes that these systemic failures “…potentially tens of thousands of other children” with mental health problems” … slip between the cracks every year….” Report p. 107


As the report is careful to note, Adam Lanza is not absolved from guilt just because system failures. Yet, recognition of the need for intensive therapeutic intervention probably would have made a difference here. Certainly, a strong case can be made – and the report does make it – that if school districts were to actually make use of available resources to identify and properly place students in situations that truly address their deficits, those students would stand a chance of actually making progress in line with the stated purposes of the IDEA. Surely, no good comes of ignoring a student’s weakness. Passing grades don’t excuse failing to examine the student as a whole person when there is an indication of a need to address social or emotional deficits. Connecticut’s Report illustrates that the cost of this failure is simply too high.

Here is the link to the Report:>

  1. I like the efforts you have put in this, thank you for all the great posts.

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