We like to think of young adulthood as a time when the world is an exciting place in which to be. But for one out of five Connecticut residents, that world is fraught with anxieties and fears as mental health issues cloud the scene. That population includes teenagers and young adults. According to TurningPointCT.org, 14.6 percent of Connecticut high school students have had serious suicidal thoughts this past year. Count Newtown’s youth in that statistic. Suicide attempts and suicide by people under the age of 25 are not just anecdotal here. They are a reality.
Superintendent of Schools Joseph V. Erardi, Jr, conducted his first Parent/Community Forum September 18 in a packed lecture hall at Newtown High School. The evening’s topic was a question brimming with engagement and hope: What must take place for your son/daughter to have their absolute best school year? Our initial response to the question was not a direct answer but a general observation: How far we have come in how we communicate with our school officials over the past three years.
The governor’s Sandy Hook Advisory Commission has heard testimony from an array of experts on school security, mental health, and gun violence prevention in the past year and a half, but none spoke more authoritatively on the impact of sudden chaos on the orderly life of a community than Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra. She addressed the panel last Friday. Commissioners sat rapt as Mrs Llodra described what it was like in the days following December 14, 2012 to keep a local government functioning in the eye of a storm of 6,000 phone calls, 200,000 pieces of mail, 65,000 teddy bears, the spontaneous proliferation of memorial funds, cash and material donations, wave after wave of relentless media, and volunteers showing up with therapy dogs, massage tables, and professional mental health services. One impressed commissioner told the first selectman, “You have set a new standard.” Mrs Llodra’s message, however, was that what Newtown went through shouldn’t be the standard.
Hartford’s response to 12/14 took two distinct paths. Ironically, the path fraught with contention and strife — a package of stricter gun laws — was chosen quickly, by a determined governor working with the advantage of legislative majorities in the state House and Senate and political tailwinds emerging from the storm of shock and sorrow following the Sandy Hook tragedy. The second path leading to an overhaul of the state’s mental health infrastructure and services for youth and children presented far fewer political obstacles, yet has been far more difficult to formulate and launch. Apparently, it is easier to restrict something than to promote something.
After months of research and analysis, a couple of Legislative Council members, who stressed they were not working as council members, recommended to the Board of Selectmen last month that the town go forward and determine “the best path” for joining a regional emergency dispatch system. In making their recommendation, Jeff Capeci and Neil Chaudhary emphasized that the town could potentially save 30 percent of the $1.03 million it now spends by consolidating Newtown’s dispatch services with the operations of a regional service in Torrington. The pair also claimed the move could improve both public safety and response times for first responders to emergency calls. And they suggested that such regional dispatch arrangements might become mandatory in the future. While they did recognize “concerns” about the move to regionalization, they saw no reason to shelve the idea at this point.
For more than 50 years, townspeople have swarmed to the center of town to watch the Newtown Labor Day Parade. Entertaining, free, and educational at times, the floats, bands, horses, dogs, music and more work an end-of-summer magic on the people that line the streets, from the top of Main Street to the judging stand on Queen Street. It is a tradition that pulls the entire town together, erasing the divisions that make people exult in their Dodgingtown, Botsford, Sandy Hook, Hawleyville, or borough residencies. For a few hours, the first Monday in September every year, we are simply residents of Newtown.
There is a strip of open space that runs from the south to the north and east, skirting behind the ball fields at Reed Intermediate School, along Old Farm Road by open fields toward the point near Commerce Road where the Pootatuck River joins Deep Brook. Conservation Commission Chair Ann Astarita told The Bee last week that she is particularly concerned about this tract, known as the Deep Brook Open Space. It is supposed to protect Deep Brook, one of just nine Class I trout streams in the state. Last year, however, a toxic substance drained into the brook from storm water discharge pipes emanating from the Fairfield Hills complex. After the contamination was discovered, only four small live fish were found in a quarter-mile stretch of Deep Brook. Scores of fish were killed. Last week, Ms Astarita called the fish kill a “real environmental hit,” and urged the community to be more protective of its natural resources.
Of all the tools at our disposal for realizing the aspirations of success and happiness we have for our children in this age of educational innovation, the humble playground seems to be little more than a curio from a simpler time — an old-school monument to… well, old schools. Viewed against the modern array of electronic smart boards, networked personal devices, and other springboards into a brimming ocean of information, playground equipment can look like nostalgic relics of downtime, which is anathema to the modern young family, right? Newtown, wisely, is betting that is wrong.
Two years ago, when the governor signed Public Act 12-152, An Act Concerning the State’s Open Space Plan, the new law was heralded as evidence of Connecticut’s enlightened approach to conservation. Not only was the initiative seen as an endorsement of the state’s goal of extending open space protections to 673,210 acres — 21 percent of the state’s area — by 2023, it was intended to foster the same kind of strategic planning to open space protection that is normally accorded to land development. Specifically, it called for integrating open space acquisitions with the critical environmental need for protected wildlife habitats and ecosystems. The idea was to facilitate the efficient flow and operation of natural systems just as we might for transportation systems. It is a great concept, which according to a report issued by the Connecticut Audubon Society last week, is not working out in practice.
It has been about nine months since the Board of Selectmen appointed 12 volunteers to the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial Commission. We learned from the panel last week that in that time, the commission has begun an “outreach process” to various groups in the community that will last for several months. When they were first appointed, First Selectman Pat Llodra warned them that the process of forming some kind of consensus on a community memorial for those lost at the Sandy Hook School on 12/14 would take time. It is clear from the commission’s great caution and care in approaching their task that they took the first selectman’s words to heart. In fact, in the preface to a list of frequently asked questions released by the commission last week, we discovered that “it has yet to be determined if a memorial will be constructed in the community.”