Newtown Families Offer Insight Into Aftermath of Shooting
The parents of one Sandy Hook Elementary School victim rebuked Newtown’s municipal government Friday for failing to keep the families of the victims informed following the massacre.
Benjamin Wheeler was a first grader who was among the 26 people killed by a gunman at the Newtown elementary school on Dec. 14, 2012. His parents, David and Francine Wheeler, spoke Friday through a video chat to the the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, a panel created by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to review the incident.
David Wheeler praised the state government’s response to the shooting, particularly the decision to assign a state trooper to serve as a state liaison to each of the families. He also complimented Malloy, who interacted personally with the families in the aftermath of the incident. But Wheeler was critical of the town response.
“State agencies performed admirably and continue to do so. The communication continues. We don’t feel as though we are being marginalized or left out in any way. The town government and the town departments did not necessarily meet that level of performance,” he told the panel.
Wheeler, who has another son in the Newtown school system, said his only contact with the town Board of Education and superintendent’s office came more than a week after the shooting, and only after he and his wife made “some noise about it.”
Wheeler protested that the town made some decisions regarding its schools without seeking input from the parents of the victims. For instance, he said that when his surviving son came home with his fourth grade yearbook, he learned that the school trauma team had decided not to include any photos of the students and teachers who had been killed. He said he would liked to have known about that decision.
“It was as if the first three months of the school year and the people who were lost, as it was reflected in that yearbook, never existed,” he said.
Wheeler stressed to the group that every person handles and recovers from trauma differently. Some families may not have wanted to receive all the information he and his wife were seeking, he said. But he said it was critically important for his family.
“When something is taken away from you in this way,” he said, pausing to collect himself. “When your life is changed in this way and you experience this kind of loss, you are starving for information. You are starving for reassurance that what is happening around you is appropriate and desirable.”
Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson, the Sandy Hook Commission’s chairman, said his group will likely recommend establishing liaisons to communicate with people impacted by future tragedies and help them navigate local, state, and federal government agencies.
Jackson said Newtown was likely struggling with limited resources to deal with an event of enormous magnitude. He questioned whether any town in the state would have had the capacity to handle those unexpected demands. Jackson said towns need to develop regional partnerships to address the issue.
“In this case, there was a communication gap and the response systems must be prepared to address that communication gap. I’m not going to say how, because it kind of depends, but you have to understand that in any tragedy there are victims and you can’t leave the victims off to the side,” Jackson said.
During his remarks to the commission, Wheeler said he and his wife often encountered professionals who seemed emotionally unprepared to assist them. He estimated that they encountered people who effectively offered services with “purpose” and “confidence” only about 50 or 60 percent of the time. On many other occasions, he said, “we were the ones who ended up consoling them.”
“You can imagine that is a devastating turn of events for a grieving parent,” Wheeler said. “. . . I certainly don’t blame them. I mean, we’re all humans and we have very different reactions to this kind of thing. It’s understandable but it’s not desirable.”
Jackson said that response could be partly attributable to the sheer number of people who sought to offer aid to the families. But he said it suggests that there needs to be a stronger reliance on pre-vetted professionals.
“You had a situation where everyone in the world wanted to help and people carrying credentials in their pockets wanted to help, too, so they self-dispatched out. In a situation like that, you are never going to get 100 percent high-quality,” he said.
A call for comment to Newtown First Selectman E. Patricia Llodra’s office was not immediately returned.
Michele Gay, another parent who lost her daughter, Josephine Grace, during the shooting, also addressed the panel. Gay, who founded the group Safe and Sound: A Sandy Hook Initiative, offered a series of recommendations to the commission designed to enhance school safety.