Special Education: An Overlooked Factor to the Newtown Tragedy


Something has been tugging at my heart in the wake of the unfathomable tragedy in Newtown, CT.  The obvious broken systems have been laid bare.  Gun control issues must be wrestled away from special interests and mental health must be recognized as an urgent public health issue. 

But there’s another broken system in America that has yet to be fully addressed in light of Friday’s incident:  special education.

I venture to say that every parent of a special needs child knows of what I speak. 

Certainly, here in Seattle, it is common knowledge that school districts fail to provide a free and appropriate education to every child it serves.  A scathing article in the Seattle Times lays out what everyone knows all too well – teachers are without the proper training and resources to address the needs of their most vulnerable of students.

Because of this, I can certainly relate to certain elements of the Adam Lanza story. I, too, have been forced to homeschool my high school-aged son with Asperger’s because he was unable to withstand the hurly-burly of a huge, urban high school, nor thrive in the self-contained setting they offered with other children who were extremely low functioning.  Like Lanza, my son would become easily overwhelmed and take flight from what he was supposed to be doing. When a beloved classroom aide transferred to another school, no one had my son’s back anymore and the school would not be proactive about his triggers, despite my myriad exhortations. 

When I withdrew my “problem” child from school, they were nothing but relieved. I asked for homeschool resources and all they gave me was a list of free online courses. The district’s beautifully appointed Homeschool Resource Center, with its science lab, gym, library and classrooms are only for the neurotypical because I was told “they don’t have the budget to service Level 3 Special Ed students."  Now, the end result is an isolated teen who becomes more so, consigned to stare at a computer screen all day long.

I’ve been piecing together a new life for my son with my limited resources, but it’s certainly not easy. And then I read of Nancy Lanza, without a financial care in the world, holed up with her degenerating son. Maybe when you live high on a hill in an idyllic town, it’s harder to admit the reality of your life does not match the veneer — that you, in fact, aren’t hacking it as a single mother of a troubled child and that you need help. 

By all accounts, Ms. Lanza’s forays into the community were to escape her troubles, not to share them.  It reads like a major mental illness such as schizophrenia had befallen her son, and denial allowed her to believe she could handle him alone.  It remains to be seen if her gun collection was secured, but the decision to teach her son to shoot was a tragic one. If she had survived, she likely would’ve faced charges of culpability.

One fact among everything I read stuck with me — Adam Lanza’s problems first became apparent when he started elementary school and he could not find his place amongst his peers.  Maybe this is a clue as to why he revisited that scene with such deadly intent.  

To be very clear, I am in no way sympathizing with Lanza nor am I justifying the horrific acts he committed.  However, due to my own personal experiences as a single mother with a special needs child, I feel I understand much better than most as to why things unfolded the way they did.

When talking heads now espouse the need to take care of our children, special pains must be made to include all of them, including our most vulnerable.  Special education teachers need special training and programs must fit the child, rather than vice versa.  Federal pressure must be brought to bear upon school systems who chronically and flagrantly violate the civil rights of our special needs children so that the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975) is not a lofty dream, but a working reality.

The conscience of a nation needs awakening … the dire state of our special education system affects us all.

Susan Moffitt

49 Responses to Special Education: An Overlooked Factor to the Newtown Tragedy

  1. Barbara says:

    Single mom of 2 on spectrum………well said!

  2. Michal Nortness says:

    Thank you Susan. We have to have better support for the children and their families. You have my admiration – but then, you know that.

  3. Susan says:

    Thank you both. Barbara, I actually have twins on the spectrum, but focused on one of them for the post, so we are kindred spirits.

  4. Marlena says:

    Hello, good post. I am a single mother of a special needs child too and it is hard getting help. I like going to babycenter Autism Spectrum disorder group for support to see the type of therapies, schooling and other resources are available.

  5. Alicia De La Torre says:

    I have the same story but I found a way to have some happy median. First, in self contained class rooms your child becomes bullied because their are children who are emotionally disturbed or ED. The reason is because of the lack of federal funding for special education. Second if you have a doctor give you an order for medical homebound than the dirstirct has to provide a teacher in your home for your child and honor your child’s IEP. Third you can contact an advocate lawyer who will go to batt for your child and write an IEP for your child with your input, best part is it is free. Your child will also recieve speech or OT if it is warrent in the IEP. I know it is not a perfect answer but it can work because it is the law. I know because I have two ASD and I have done it. It is also important to understand the laws that protect our childrens welfare in school. Did any one watch Diane Sawyer’s piece on autism? Skin shock therapy, locking them in closets, or bags, tieing them to desks…..I was sickened. We need to do more and better by our children!!!

  6. Julie says:

    Susan, I’m so sorry that through the tragedy in my life, I’ve lost touch. It’s awfully hard to connect with anyone, even when I want to. What a beautiful, insightful, thoughtful article you wrote! My friend, with 2 kiddos on the spectrum, also wrote an incredibly short but slam-dunk response to the ‘autism’ argument for the troubled Adam. There are no answers for what he did. But what you have done? The lengths you have gone to advocate for your beloved boys? I could not be prouder to know you. Give those special boys, and the one so dear to my heart, huge hugs. I think of you all so very, very often!!!

  7. Marion King, Foxboro, MA says:

    Thank you for saying in public what I could only say in private.

  8. shar dut says:

    ["One fact among everything I read stuck with me — Adam Lanza’s problems first became apparent when he started elementary school and he could not find his place amongst his peers. Maybe this is a clue as to why he revisited that scene with such deadly intent. "]

    There is aleast one school with a model that may be of help.

    SVRCS seeks to personalize interest and cultivate abilities of young people and provide experiences and appropriate expressions of diversity which value all individuals and their right to belong. http://www.svrcs.org/charter_school_design.htm

  9. shar dut says:

    online support group for special needs families http://www.facebook.com/groups/192871700844781/

  10. Susan says:

    Thank you, one and all, for writing.

  11. Lauren Marshall says:

    Great article! Kudos to you for writing it! I was twice devastated by this tragedy–devastated by the innocent lives lost and devastated by the implications that Adam Lanza had Asperger’s. I worry that this will trigger the kind of reactive prejudices toward Aspies that we saw in America towards Muslims after 9/11, or towards Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. I worry it will make our schools and society even more reluctant to serve the needs of challenging children, and more quick to push them out the door. It’s very important that we families with autism help to keep the dialogue around this constructive and focus on the factors, as Susan has done, that prevent indivudals with autism from reaching their potential. Autism does not make one violent, and the actions of one individual are not representative of a group.

    We are told that individuals with autism lack empathy. My 11 y/o daughter, who has Asperger’s, was filled with compassion for the children who died. “just before Christmas!” she exclaimed and talked of the unwrapped presents in the closet that the children would never see, of the children and their parents eating breakfast like any other day, kissing each other goodbye Friday morning, making plans for the weekend, never knowing they would never see each other again. “How could someone do such a horrible thing?!” she asked, then answered her own question “He was so mad at the world, he didn’t want to live, and figured he would take his anger out on everyone before he went.” Though horrifed and repulsed by his actions, she understands what kind of isolation and despair can drive someone to such a despicable act.

    There are times my daughter has been a challenging child, times in the past when she has thrown tantrums, kicked teachers and had to be sent home from elementary school. There are times she says she hates the whole human race and wishes she were a bald eagle instead. And yet, she is capable of great love and compassion. The messages and support she gets from her family, her friends, her school and community will determine whether in the end that love and compassion wins out.

    We must fight the all-too-easy explanation that Adam Lanza’s “Asperger’s” or “personality disorder,” as the press has reported it, caused this tragedy. Adam was born with an unfair disadvantge, but also with great intellectual potential, we are told. Somewhere along the way, society let him down. Let the lesson from this tragey be to make our village more inclusive, not less so.

  12. Great writing, Susan. I write for the Seattle Schools Community Forum blog and we frequently talk about Special Ed and the lack of services. My son was diagnosed late with Asperger’s and it was both a relief to know and a puzzle to figure out what to do.

    He found a high school that (mostly) worked. (He was allowed to avoid the pep rallies – too much indoor noise – and I wondered how the shooter learned to shoot with that kind of noise.) He struggled throughout college but we were very proud that he finished and, after a year of looking for any kind of job, found one testing video games.

    Susan, e-mail me if you ever want any advice. I have only this one son but we did manage to make some inroads for him.

  13. Miranda's mom says:

    Hi Lauren,

    Your daughter was Miranda’s classmate. I want to vouch for the empathy our children have, if only the rest of society would take the time and energy to see it. I’m very upset with the lazy attempt to ascribe this tragedy to those “crazy” autistics. Thank you Susan for this post.

  14. TBF says:

    Thank you for a great post.
    Your thoughts were mine the first time I read about Adam Lanza’s tragedy.

    I hope that this makes America wake up to the fact that the special needs of children must be addressed!
    For too long has this Nation ignored, denied, and inappropriately addressed the special needs of children.

    Talk to any parent of special needs, and they will tell you horror stories of how they and their child was discriminated upon, unjustly accused of acts that they did not commit, intimidated with Due Process, and every trick in the book used to prevent Free and Appropriate Education being served to the special needs child (by the School District).

    It is difficult to believe that in this supposed “Democratic” society, such injustice and discrimination and abuse (verbal, emotional, and physical) is allowed by the government (Office of Administrative Hearing, California’s judicial process for special ed, is obviously so in favor of the Districts).

    I don’t know what must have happened to Adam Lanza during his time at public school to make him commit such heinous acts, but it must not have been positive.

    As parents (and the public), we must educate ourselves as much as possible about our children’s deficits and education laws (FAPE, No Child Left Behind, Child Find, etc. Wrightslaw.com and its books are a great source), advocate for our children at school, and lobby for laws to change the laws and force the Districts to put the child’s interest first and their self-preservation second.

    When the government does not fully fund education, it pits the parents and Districts against each other who do not have the money to appropriately address the special needs of children.

    I hope to see a day when Districts and parents can work together as partners and not as adversaries as they are today.
    It’s time for America to wake up to the fact that a $ spent today will save hundreds of thousands later, and save lives (figuratively and literally).

  15. Susan says:

    I appreciate all your thoughtful replies. Your insights and suggestions are invaluable.

  16. Pam says:

    Thank you for your post. I am just curious as to what your opinion is of allowing a child with special needs access to handguns and assault weapons. Thank you in advance for your honest opinion. Or even if access wasn’t allowed, just having these types of weapons in the home of a special needs child.

  17. Susan says:

    Horrible things happen when parents, for whatever reasons, become enablers. This mother was wildly off base having guns in the same house as her son, much less teaching him to shoot them so well. That this was the mother/son activity she chose to do with him is frankly sickening. This punches up the dangers of having one person in the world making all the decisions in his life.

  18. ny asd parent says:

    yes, this is what we ALL think. we know. thank you for writing this.

  19. Susan: Thank you so much for saying what a lot of us were thinking. As the parent of two children with disabilities, an educational advocate for over 20 years and the author of an advocacy book for parents I totally agree with everything you said. I am including a few comments that I sent to an online group–just my opinion of course:

    ” I have read a few articles but this one tugs at the heartstrings. I do sympathize with the Lanza family–I think the mom made a few bad choices, but she obviously loved her son! Something that has not gotten a lot of attention is that the mom was a single mom–trying to do everything herself–while her husband moved on and had no contact with the young man (for at least the last two years). I deal with a similar situation myself where my ex husband has moved on and left me with the full responsibility of caring for my daughter Angelina (not trying to sound negative because she brings me joy every day)–just stating the truth! It is hard being a single mother of a child in school with disabilities (or homeschooling)–it is ten times as hard when they are an adult and you cannot get services for them (my state recently settled a disability services lawsuit with a consent decree–but I know families still waiting to receive services). My daughter was one of the lucky few that receives home based support services–but we have to fight all the time to keep the services that she receives, as the State constantly tries to cut them out of the budget. Can we all imagine how hard it was for the mom without no help, no one who understood what was going on–and no state govermental services–I can–and I bet all of you can also!

  20. Susan says:

    Yeah, I am in that same boat as a single mom, but I myself was a victim of gun violence when I was 12, so my patience for that part of this story is veritably non-existent. I have compassion for her being diagnosed w/MS, which is coming to light, but that made her need to reach out all the more intense. She had the means to engage professionals to help her and Adam with their problems, and to pave the way for him to make a smooth transition to adulthood. It’s just very, very tragic, and didn’t have to be so.

  21. Susan: I am a survivor of domestic violence so I definetely understand some issues about violence, as you do yourself. The problem that I found where I live is no professionals were qualified to deal with my daughters aggressive behavior (due to her disability) when she was a teenager. The most they could do was throw medicine at it–and that was only part of the solution. I took me years to realize that she was modeling was her father was doing. When he left things improved, though it took some years to work through. Now she is 31 years old, and is wearing a Santa hat to cheer people up–which she does. Some people chuckle so hard I am afraid they are going to fall down :) I guess the whole point I am trying to make is that what if she did try and get help, but there was none availabe? I have heard from many parents that have similar stories to mine–no help when they needed it!

    Also, my son has PDD and the issues we had with him had gotten so bad he went to live with a relative in another State. Medicaid and Social Security kept turning him down even though they recognized that he had disabilities. I could no longer handle his rages, nor could his father. If he had gotten Social Security and Medicaid this would have helped at least to pay for his medication (which he had to go off of because of no health insurance).

    Susan: We may never know everything that happened with the mom but thanks for bringing up the subject.

  22. Lauren Marshall says:

    I remember Miranda! Great girl! I’d love to hear how she’s doing. (You can email me via my website http://www.Laurenmarshall.com.

    There was a great article on the front page of the Seattle Times today saying don’t blame autism for what happened.

  23. Susan Moffitt says:

    Joann, I guess I get frustrated because I have no money and I envy people who have choices that I don’t. She flew all over the world to look at schools for her son. She could’ve taken him to Australia to see my hero, Dr. Tony Attwood, for that matter. I think she needed more input from other sources, outside voices, to help her make decisions that affected them both (and the whole community, as it turns out).

    Maybe it seems mean to second guess her, but there was just this huge disconnect between her knowing her kid was unraveling, and her sharing her love of guns with him. There’s culpability there, tragic culpability, but culpability none the less.

  24. Angie says:

    I couldn’t finish this, sorry but it was disgusting me, blaming public schools and the rich and guns is not the answer, and we can not, I repeat can not believe the media on any stories, they only tell what they think will ‘sell’ which is lies, and more lies, and major holes in stories. So I can not and will not believe one thing the media is saying about this mother/wife and now this one is in her grave and can not retaliate, so what an easy target, it’s interesting how the society always wants to attack the mother, yes she may of been the one that ‘raised’ him but now he is an adult and he chose his own way, it was not the guns it was not the school system it was in his choosing, now if he was on meds, there is something to look at there, meds can make you do some crazy things. I am sure this mother like any other mother tried every thing in her power to take great care and find great care and thought she was doing what all she could, no mother or no one could of ever thought this young man would of made this decision. As a mom with a special needs child, I am the only one that is responsible for her, her care and her education, if the public school doesn’t hack it, then I have to find other resources, no it is not easy rather you are married or not, or rather your poor or rich, but life is not easy on anyone.

  25. Susan Moffitt says:

    I was very straightforward and honest about my personal biases in this case. Adam Lanza is responsible for Adam Lanza, but systemic problems at school and at home set the stage for this disaster. Public schools under the law are required to make a safe place for every child, and when they do not it sets off a chain of events that reverberates in the home and community. I have no doubt that his mother loved him and tried what was her best, and her isolation is heartbreaking, but she is still culpable when it comes to the guns.

  26. GG says:

    As long as the child has not reached 18 , the age of maturity, he can still return back to school on mom’s request. She can force the school to take him back. After 18, it gets tricky since he has say then. If he agrees with you, you are ok. Request a full re-evaluation so you can clarify his needs to the school and the state agencies. Once he is back in school, they have to provide him the services based on what his needs are as determined in his evaluation testing. Check out the dept of vocational rehab to get some services too. If he is in school he can stay in school until he reaches 21, however you have to get buyin from all that he has not met his IEP goals. If he meets all the credits to graduate, but still needs to meet other functional and social needs, these goals need to be put in the IEP. The main point….don’t let these schools drop the ball. IDEA protects your child….at least at minimum until 18….the18 to 21 gets tricky and you have to have a solid IEP.

  27. Susan Moffitt says:

    Thank you for your suggestions. Our situation is more complicated than I can explain in this forum, but it’s good to have those choices explained for the benefit of others.

  28. GG says:

    Don’t give up that easy. Google wrights law. Goggle local special Ed advocates and special Ed lawyers. Reach out to the special Ed dept in your state to find out for sure. Ask your schools child study team dept. Read books and advocate for help. There are resources out there you just have to be diligent in your search. God bless you and your family and pray for the strength to take this on. Things can look up.

  29. Susan says:

    I appreciate your exhortations. I have engaged the education ombudsman of the governor’s office and she is calling me today. Trouble is, my son has attended five schools in the last seven years. One of them was a private placement at the expense of the district that I won through litigation. Initially it was an absolute dream, but then his fantastic teacher was fired for asking about the school’s finances and the new class he was put in was a hell hole. Two of his classmates brutally teased him and when he started screaming in reaction interventionists dragged him to the seclusion room, a tiny cell with an iron door, and threw him in. He came home catatonic and physically bruised. So then it was back to public schools. In his latest placement, he was only taking one class (another long story there) which was film. He absolutely loved it. But when he wanted to do a movie with a gay theme for a life story assignment, his teacher brutally shut him down by telling him that he “has to understand that while some people tolerate the homosexual lifestyle, it doesn’t mean they accept it”, and that he “was making his classmates uncomfortable” and “straights don’t care about gay issues and don’t want to see that in a movie”. (This was the first time censorship had arisen, the prior film festival was rife drugs and sex). He ran out of the room screaming up and down the halls. The school’s stance was that he threw a fit because he didn’t get his way. There are layer upon layer of violations here, the principal hates me and it’s an extremely toxic situation.

  30. Natalie says:

    I agree with Susan. I’m from Canada and have a young son with PDDNOS. Even our school systems can’t handle children a little different. We have him in a wonderful Montessori School, they help him where he needs help. ( eg. His social skills have improved so much in the 2&1/2 years he has been in Montessori , also less meltdowns) he is gifted with PDDNOS so schooling is very important.
    And for what purpose does anyone need automatic weapons in a home?????? I’ll never understand the gun policies in the US.

  31. Susan says:

    The and me, Natalie. We also incarcerate more people than any other nation.

  32. Natalie says:

    This tragedy has left me heartbroken . I was very naive about Autism spectrum disabilities until I was forced to learn more because of my son. Lets keep talking and sharing. People need to understand the differences in each other and embrace each other.

  33. Susan says:

    well spake.

  34. shar dut says:

    susan, what state are you in? have you reached out to alex? http://www.facebook.com/alexplank1?fref=ts

  35. Susan Moffitt says:

    I’m in Seattle. Thanks for the link…

  36. GG says:

    When was his last set of full evaluations…should be every 3 yrs. It should show you where he stands based on a standard curve for grade and age. What about his WISC scores and IQ. If it shows he is smart by IQ and he is behind academically…you have regression. What the district has offered you in terms of his educational placement has not met his needs. Given the proper supports the gap between what they should achieve based on IQ and what he has achieved should be no greater than 2 std dev. Need proper special ed testing to know what he is capable of and what he needs. Then the program needs to be clearly written as in IEP, then the placement is determined. What they are doing is what he had last yr so he still continues in the failing envt. So very unfair to your son.

    The other issue is how they handle him…restraint and seclusion…there are laws against these too…google the state dept of Ed for these regulations. Wrightslaw is a great resource too. Google the dept of child welfare as well in your state.

    Why only 1 class…what about his access to the core curriculum of la,math,Sci, SS, health, gym, world language? You may want to report the school to the state for failure to provide Fape.

    Perhaps you may want to also network with other parents to find some local help.

  37. Dan says:

    I know this is about special education but please do some research before you let Doctors prescribe drugs for your little children.
    The Citizens Commission of Human Rights International has been telling the FDA for years that there should be more control on Psychotropic drugs because of the side effects.
    Maybe if the FDA had done their job maybe a lot of the mass killing wouldn’t have happened.

    We don’t know yet if Adam was being treated with drugs but I wouldn’t be surprised if they find that he was.
    Please go to the CCHRI site below.


  38. Susan says:

    thanks for the link. “Sitting in a basement for 2 years” is the key line. Adam must’ve suffered the onset of a major mental illness, as the article related, Asperger’s was not the problem.

  39. Susan says:

    Dan, I agree about those drugs. And there’s being prescribed more and more for less and less.

  40. Susan says:

    I want to thank you, Shar Dut and GG, for your invaluable suggestions and kindness in helping me. I’m looking forward to following through on these leads…

  41. Susan Moffitt says:

    Thank you for providing this link. Yes, there should be a long paper trail with more than enough clues and red flags. With Adam spending his last two years in his basement playing shooter games and going to target practice with his mother, the village was non-existent.

  42. Susan says:

    Interesting, thanks.

  43. Anne Zachry says:

    Susan, you write much of the same language we’ve been espousing for years and reiterated in our own blog about the CT shootings. Thank you for your perspective as a parent.

  44. Susan says:

    Wow. Thanks for writing!

  45. Pingback: Hoping Asperger's Does Not Get Linked to Newtown Tragedy - Nyssa's Hobbit Hole

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