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Another View: We can reach children with serious behavioral problems

January 15. 2013 5:27PM

The shooting in Newtown, Conn., caused shock and grief across this country that lingers, as it should, into this new year. We may never know what caused Adam Lanza to take those horrific actions. What is possible to determine, based on research, are the educational practices that can help identify and support youth with a variety of emotional and behavioral disabilities.

Although his diagnosis is unclear, reports from Newtown indicate that Lanza was isolated, rarely left his home and was clearly experiencing psychological distress. Many students with emotional and behavioral disabilities - which can include depression, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and many other diagnoses - feel disconnected from their schools and communities.

Lanza's violence is the exception, not the rule. Students with emotional and behavioral disabilities are more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators. There is a far more widespread crisis for youth in the United States with emotional and behavioral disabilities: low rates of graduation and high rates of incarceration.

Less than 50 percent of students with emotional and behavioral disabilities graduate from high school, and these students are twice as likely as students with other types of disabilities to live in a halfway house, drug treatment center or on the street after leaving school. A University of New Hampshire study found that 73 percent of the incarcerated youth at the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester had a diagnosed disability.

Effective school-based interventions can ease the pain of these students, raise graduation rates and help students connect with their community through mentors and peer groups.

Unfortunately, many schools still focus primarily on punitive discipline policies like "zero-tolerance," which emphasizes the use of suspension, expulsion and neglect to examine the root causes of problem behavior.

Students who are suspended or expelled often drop out of school, which frequently leads to juvenile delinquency, arrests and prison. Zero-tolerance policies do little to improve school safety and disproportionately hit students with emotional and behavioral disabilities as well as students of color.

These grim statistics for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities fueled my desire to create a film that could be a resource to help educators, families and mental health professionals better understand and serve children with behavioral and emotional challenges.

My film "Who Cares About Kelsey?" focuses on Somersworth High School student Kelsey Carroll. When Kelsey entered high school, she was a more likely candidate for the juvenile justice system than graduation. She had a diagnosis of ADHD and carried the emotional scars of homelessness and substance abuse, along with actual scars of self-mutilation. As a freshman, she didn't earn a single academic credit and was suspended for dealing drugs. Many wrote her off as a "problem kid" - destined for drug addiction and jail.

During Kelsey's freshman year (2006), Somersworth High School had one of the lowest graduation rates in the state (nearly 1 in 10 students dropped out), and discipline issues were rampant. That year, the school implemented a proven approach called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) to develop a concise outline of the behaviors that were expected of all students, establish clear guidelines for addressing discipline problems and create systems for identifying students that needed more intensive supports.

For students like Kelsey who were at the greatest risk of dropping out of school, Somersworth also implemented a youth-directed planning model called RENEW (Rehabilitation for Empowerment, Natural Supports, Education, & Work).

The results were dramatic: by 2010, Somersworth High reduced its dropout rate by 75 percent, and behavior problems were down by 65 percent.

"Who Cares About Kelsey?" is the story of Kelsey's transformation from a defiant and disruptive high school student to a motivated and self-confident young woman who is living on her own and attending college.

It's too late to reach Adam Lanza, who serves as a horrific example of a gap in our society's ability to effectively identify youth in crisis, and intervene with services and supports. But it's not too late to reach and support more than two million other young people in the United States with emotional and behavioral disabilities.

"Who Cares About Kelsey?" will air on New Hampshire Public Television on Saturday, Jan. 19, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 20, at 6 p.m. For more information about the film, PBIS and RENEW, go to


Dan Habib is Filmmaker in Residence at the UNH Institute on Disability. He created the Emmy-nominated film "Including Samuel."

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