HARTFORD (AP) — In the aftermath of the Newtown school shooting, communication between town officials and victims' parents broke down at times, ranging from delayed notification about counseling programs to deciding to remove photos of victims from the school yearbook without telling families, a parent told a state commission Friday.
David Wheeler lost his son, Benjamin, in the Dec. 14, 2012, massacre. He told the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, which is reviewing the shooting and making policy recommendations, that he hoped the panel could do something to make information flow better from local government officials to victims after such tragedies.
"There was no central clearinghouse for information for the ... affected families set up in any way," Wheeler told the commission via Skype, acknowledging the school shooting likely overwhelmed government officials. "There are many times where we don't know who we should be asking for things."
The commission also heard via video chat from Michele Gay, whose daughter Josephine died in the shooting. She recommended that schools take a number of steps to try to stop or slow intruders including installing bulletproof glass and making sure teachers and substitutes can lock their classroom doors.
It was the first time parents of victims addressed the panel, which Gov. Dannel P. Malloy set up shortly after the killings. The panel is considering, among other things, ways to improve recovery efforts after such tragedies.
Gunman Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 first-graders and six educators, then killed himself as police arrived. Lanza also killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, at their Newtown home before going to the school.
"All of us want to know how to do things better, and be more sensitive to the families," said Janet Robinson, who was Newtown's school superintendent at the time of the shootings.
"Every family is a little different, and we didn't always know what they needed. Some we talked to more than others," Robinson said. She said some families were hard to reach in the immediate aftermath, because they were being overwhelmed with phone calls.
Wheeler said he and his wife didn't have any contact with the local school board or school superintendent until a week and a half after the shootings, and only after they complained.
It wasn't until June of 2013, he said, that he and his wife learned that a trauma counseling team was already in place to help families.
And when his surviving son and other fourth-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School got their yearbooks last year, Wheeler said he didn't know that a decision had been made to not include pictures of the victims. He said he wished he had been included in that decision-making process.
"It was as if the first three months of the school year and the people who were lost ... never existed," he said.
Wheeler also said he and his wife were stunned when many officials from governments and nonprofit agencies who were trying to help broke down in front of them.
"We were the ones who ended up consoling them," he said. "And you can imagine that that is a devastating turn of events for a grieving parent."
Wheeler said there should be a better screening process for people being sent in to help families in such tragedies.
Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson, chairman of the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, said there is no doubt that Newtown officials were overwhelmed by the shooting and its aftermath, as any town would be. He said he hoped lessons learned from Newtown would be used to improve responses to future devastating events like shootings and natural disasters.
"In this case there was a communication gap, and the response systems must be prepared to address that communication gap," Jackson said. "In any tragedy there are victims and you can't leave the victims off to the side."