The recently released report by Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate describes a trajectory toward unimaginable tragedy – lost lives of twenty young children and those of the educators who tried to protect them two years ago on December 14th. Investigation of this trajectory was commissioned by Connecticut’s Child Fatality Review Panel, conducted by experts from psychology, psychiatry, social work, education and advocacy. The result is a document that details the life of AL, the perpetrator of the Sandy Hook shootings. Amidst a welter of informational sources, the panel struggled to comprehend and then to communicate the complexities of systems failures that emerged. These failures left untreated a desperately damaged and severely mentally ill individual who brought about unparalleled devastation in the lives of school, families and the Newtown community. What remedies might diminish the potential for similar disasters? The report provides many important recommendations. However, among these, school records were one key source of insights into the circumstances and lost opportunities that defined AL’s withdrawal into isolation and violence. From an educational perspective, what lessons might be learned?  

First, educators must look at children through a broad lens that takes into account not only academic achievement but incorporates consideration of the whole child in the context of school and family. This is particularly critical for some children who seem to assume a cloak of invisibility. Like AL, they don’t make waves; they do their homework; they get A’s and B’s; and sometimes, despite the best intentions of teachers and administrators, they slide into obscurity in busy schools and classrooms. It’s not hard to do. In increasingly compartmentalized school structures close relationships between individual students and teachers become more difficult to establish and maintain.  Is every quiet child potentially harboring visions of violence? Of course not. But a closer look and careful, comprehensive assessment of social-emotional well-being as well as academic progress might raise red flags that were missed in AL’s case, with terrible consequences. 

Second, schools must have the resources to communicate with and integrate a broader perspective on children’s special needs through systems that talk to each other. Increasing pressures of time and fiscal resources often mean that the more complex challenges of individual children are narrowly defined or left unattended. In AL’s case, the focus of his education gradually became narrowed to specific, daily curricular decisions – what classes to assign, which books to read, even what conversational topics were tolerable. In school records, perspectives and prescriptions of clinical experts briefly emerged but had no sustained influence in crafting effective strategies for a cohesive education and treatment plan. Lack of access to complementary, school-based mental health services means that many children will continue to suffer consequences that severely limit their options and opportunities lifelong. National statistics on educational outcomes for children with emotional disturbance are clear. Without intervention, the futures of these boys and girls will be severely compromised – not only in terms of life outcomes but, too often, in terms of their own health and safety or that of others.  

Third, we need to examine the preparation of teachers, administrators, and others who provide related services in our schools. Education means more than academic rigor. Teacher preparation and professional development have become increasingly focused on curricular content and quantitative measurement in ways that can distract from needed focus on the broader physical, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive development of children. Are we preparing teachers who are sufficiently sensitive to the social, emotional and mental health needs, as well as the academic progress, of children? Are we truly preparing educators who can engage, support and (on occasion) challenge parents as well as students? Who are knowledgeable about community resources within and outside the school building?  

There is no ready solace for the families and community of Sandy Hook. However, unless we are prepared to look critically at education, we will fail to act in ways that have promise for preventive strategies. We must emphasize observation and understanding of each individual child in every classroom.  Based upon that observation, response to red flags when they occur is essential for physical and mental health as well as for successful academic outcomes. While tragedy of the magnitude of Sandy Hook is without precedent, one lesson learned is that the realization of each child’s potential, as well as preservation of personal safety and academic promise, demands a broader perspective, improved professional preparation, and connectivity with community resources. As we value the lives and learning of all our children, we can do no less. 

Spencer is dean of Pace University’s School of Education, an educational consultant to the Center for Children’s Advocacy and co-author of “Shooting At Sandy Hook Elementary School.”