Wilton schools see uptick in 'significant' social, emotional and mental health concerns

WILTON — School officials are noticing an uptick in the number of extreme social and emotional cases in their student body. 

And despite a number of effective in-district programs that have played a part in keeping students with special or critical needs in Wilton, the number of students being placed out of the district is growing, officials said.

"We're seeing an increase in kids with significant and intractable depression and significant levels of anxiety that are having a dramatic impact on their overall functioning," said Andrea Leonardi, Wilton's assistant superintendent of special services. "We're also seeing a rise in the number of students who are spending time in psychiatric hospitals for that anxiety and depression."

The number of students "who are suicidal and really need the most intense level of therapy" increased from a previous high of two to six this year, Superintendent Kevin Smith said in a pre-budget presentation last month.

Those students are sent to 24/7 residential, therapeutic settings outside of the town to properly address their needs, which Smith said costs roughly $50,000 to $70,000 per student — about twice as costly on average when compared to a typical, in-district school placement. 

This week, Leonardi said she hasn't seen this many outplacements for this reason in her five years with the district. 

"Right now, we have a number of kids residentially placed that is far more than we've had at least in my tenure here in Wilton," Leonardi said. "Typically, to place more than one student residentially a year is rare, and we've placed six in the timeframe from last year at this time to now."

It's not just in Wilton. She said she's spoken to fellow educators across the state and there is also a rise in the number of students spending time in psychiatric hospitals for anxiety and depression in Connecticut, per Leonardi.

The reason does not just boil down to stresses leftover from the pandemic, either, she said.

"The train was already on the tracks before COVID," Leonardi said. "We were seeing upticks in students with significant social, emotional and mental health concerns prior to the pandemic. I think what the pandemic has done has exacerbated it."

The district has developed its own programs over the last five years to help offset not just the costs related to helping these students, but keeping them in town to be closer to their friends, family and home as well.

Leonardi said there is an assessment process that determines where the student should be placed to be best served.

First, she said, a problem must be identified, such as troubles with learning, paying attention, behavioral outbursts and truancy. Then, a parent, doctor or guardian may request the district begin a 45-day evaluation process where a team of specially trained professionals assess what exactly the student needs.

Wilton offers the Genesis Program for students who may suffer from social or emotional distress that impacts their ability to follow a typical schooling day to keep them in-house.

"I would characterize it as kind of a therapeutic day program, where students could come for the school day, receive all of their academic instruction, but also there's a very powerful level of therapeutic intervention to help them realize their potential," Leonardi said. She added that, in this case, students can still participate in clubs and sports teams in Wilton and hang out with friends while also getting the professional attention they need.

Leonardi said there has not been a psychiatric hospitalization of a student in the program for three years now.

The district also offers a multitude of other programs for students with learning disabilities or other special needs, with the Community Steps Program providing aid and helping integrate the individual into the community at large until they are 22.

Leonardi said running these programs is not inexpensive, but it is significantly less expensive than having to place the child out-of-district.

Smith said he'd have a better idea at the end of the school year on whether costs could continue to rise if the uptick in extreme outplacements continues.

"If that pattern continues, then yes," Smith said. "Because, by simple math, we're having more students engage in more costly programs and so, therefore, that will cost more."

Leonardi said funding to address the severe need of these students is important, but pointed out severe shortages of well-trained social workers, psychologists and therapists across the state and country.

"We're lucky in Fairfield County," she said, "but there is a crisis level of a lack of services available to families to support their children and their family structures so they could get through this." She lauded the efforts of parents for their "monumental" support of students during the year.

She also hopes there is a cultural shift soon.

"We need to make learning fun again," Leonardi said. "We need learning to be a process where failure is OK, because it teaches you something. Where we can learn and fail and grow and then develop and not have to be competing all the time for that grade." 

Leonardi also hopes to see a halt to the culture of what she calls the "college arms race," where students are stretched thin for time on a weekly basis, are pushed towards scholastic perfection and their efforts are perennially tied to a number that they hope is good enough for the college they've longed for.

"They need stability, and they need to learn in an environment where failure isn't life-altering," she said, "where they can try, and then they can try again, and in the end, be OK."