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Sandy Hook Panel: Schools Must Address Mental Health, Social, Emotional Issues

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A Connecticut panel formed to recommend state policy changes following the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown released a draft of its final report Thursday. The panel will vote to make the report final Friday before sending its recommendations to the governor.

The report by the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission includes dozens of recommendations for the sectors of mental health, law enforcement, and school facilities, following years of testimony from experts and witnesses closely connected to the event.

Central to the report were calls to involve schools more in the non-academic areas of children's lives. Among the recommendations:

Schools should actively teach "healthy social development."

"Social-emotional learning must form an integral part of the curriculum from preschool through high school," the report says. "Social-emotional learning can help children identify and name feelings such as frustration, anger and loneliness that potentially contribute to disruptive and self-destructive behavior. It can also teach children how to employ social problem-solving skills to manage difficult emotional and potentially conflictual situations."

Schools should form "multidisciplinary risk-assessment teams."

Those teams should "gather information on and respond supportively to children who may pose a risk to others or face a risk to themselves due to toxic stress, trauma, social isolation or other factors," the report says.

"Schools should look to factors such as social connectedness in identifying children at risk; all school staff should be trained in inquiry-based techniques to apply when disciplinary issues arise in order to deepen their understanding of how children's behavior can be linked to underlying stressors," the report says.

Schools should work with providers and community groups to offer an array of social and mental health services.

"For many children, schools offer the only real possibility of accessing services, so districts should increase the availability of school guidance counselors, social workers, psychologists, and other school health and behavioral health professionals during and after school as well as potentially on Saturdays," the report says.

The report also touches on dozens of other state policies. For example, the panel suggested that janitors, who have working knowledge of how school buildings are used, should sit on school safety committees along with first responders, district officials, and mental health professionals. It also includes more well-known recommendations about gun sales and safety, such as requiring that ammunition sold or processed in Connecticut should include an etched serial number so that it can be traced.

While gun laws overhelmed the national conversation following the Newtown shootings, the state has kept a focus on mental health issues as well.

Another state report, released in November 2014, chillingly detailed multiple times shooter Adam Lanza's mental health and emotional needs slipped through the cracks of a fragmented system of mental health and education providers.

"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," that report concluded.

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