Sandy Hook commission focuses on improving state response to tragedy

Hartford - Commissioners of various state agencies met with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's Sandy Hook Advisory Commission Friday to discuss how the state could better respond in the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy.

They described what they learned as they and others worked through the days after the shooting of 26 elementary school students and staff but said they didn't have all the answers.

"There are so many things that you are just not prepared for, and Dec. 14 was one," Joette Katz, commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, said.

Katz and Patricia Rehmer, Commissioner of Mental Health and Addiction Services, Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor and Commissioner of Public Health Jewel Mullen discussed how they have worked together since the tragedy and what else might be done to help the state and the community of Newtown get to a healthy place.

David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement and a Sandy Hook commission member, asked the commissioners whether a quick training for teachers on how to support children dealing with crisis or loss is needed.

Rehmer said she didn't have a precise answer but that it was clear by the Sunday after the tragedy that teachers and staff were as traumatized as the children and were being asked to return to school and "be normal."

The state agencies used some of the lessons learned after Sept. 11, 2001, but the impact of "children under a certain age" being murdered was different, she said.

"We had to deal with their (teachers and administrators) trauma before we could put them in the classrooms with children who were highly traumatized," Rehmer said.

"We have to think about how to deal with that better," she said.

Sandy Hook commissioners also asked whether first responders, service providers and staff in general had been given the chance to debrief.

Rehmer said the state has used outside help to debrief some of the first responders because they are the people who normally do the debriefing. Mullen said often, first responders wouldn't seek help, but that she has seen a mobilization of support within the first responders' community.

They "sometimes even tell about their own PTSD, in the moment," she said.

Katz said more needs to be done to educate people about post-traumatic stress disorder and its symptoms.

Many first responders come from a little town where a traffic ticket is the activity of the day, she said.

"My concern is that people will self-medicate and won't just self-medicate with alcohol, they will self-medicate with other substances," Katz said.

Agency commissioners agreed that although they met regularly and divided up tasks immediately after the trauma, a more coordinated effort should be prepared.

Rehmer said a short-term school support team could be created to help school districts resume normal operations. Pryor said teacher training programs should be re-evaluated to better prepare teachers to deal with trauma.

The state also should examine how feedback from school psychologists can be incorporated into teachers' professional development plans, he said.

"Whatever you do, I think it can't be a one-shot deal because anyone who has ever taken CPR … good luck, because memories fade and literature changes," Katz said.

Alice Forrester, executive director of Clifford Beers Clinic and Sandy Hook Advisory Commission member, said coming up with comprehensive solutions is going to "take a lot of work and effort."

"I feel like the commissioners are really willing to put time in. They cleared Fridays between now and forever," she said.

The commission is expected to present a report to Malloy on March 15, but the initial letter to members said the deadline might be as far in the future as December, said Harold Schwartz, Sandy Hook Advisory Commission member and vice president for behavioral health at The Institute of Living.

j.somers@theday.com

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