A panel charged by Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy with recommending a broad range of state policy changes after the deadly Newtown school shooting began its work Thursday, urged to focus on the issue of mental health and how it can intersect with gun violence.
The panel embarked on the task as the top prosecutor in the case, Danbury State's Attorney Stephen Sedensky III, said he's prevented from turning over information about the shooter's mental health background.
But Malloy said even though the mental condition the late shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, won't be available to the commission, he believes the group can address ways to improve mental health care and reduce the stigma of seeking treatment, a key focus of the 16-member panel of experts.
"That incident is an isolated incident, but we know a lot about other incidences and mental health issues," he said, adding how Vice President Joe Biden's recommendations to the president also looked beyond the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. "We know a lot about mental health. We know that mental health treatment is stigmatized in the United States to a greater extent than it is in many other countries and we need to move in a direction where it is less stigmatized."
Sedensky, meanwhile, said the case remains under investigation and could take until June before a report is ready from the state police. He acknowledged, however, that no prosecution "appears on the horizon" for the crime that left 20 first graders and six educators dead. Lanza also killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, at the Newtown home they shared and later committed suicide as police approached the school.
Sedensky said while Lanza's mental health information is privileged, he expressed a willingness to work with the commission, which is charged with the wide-ranging task of reviewing school safety, mental health and gun violence prevention and providing the governor with recommendations for law and policy changes.
"Anything that would not encumber or somehow hinder the investigation, we will try to provide you with," Sedensky said. "At the same time, we may have limitations based on the confidentiality, but we will strive to get you what you need."
Commission members on Thursday received advice from two members of similar panels created after school shootings that occurred in Colorado and Virginia.
Former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, a member of the panel that reviewed the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, urged the Connecticut group to focus on the intersection of mental health and gun violence. He said "incident after incident" since Columbine has shown there's a relationship between the two issues.
"What we don't want is a policy debate in this country, I think, or in Connecticut, that gets locked down around the polar opposites around gun control or the polar opposites around mental health or mental health funding," Ritter said. "Part of this has to be this broad discussion and a discussion about the intersection."
Ritter, who was Denver's district attorney at the time of the Columbine shooting and was sent to the school that day, told commission members that many people are watching Connecticut and how it responds to the Newtown massacre. He said the panel has the opportunity to "actually make a difference," saying "you can end up saving lives at some point in the future." The report from Columbine led to national changes in how police respond to such events.
"As much as our investigation at Columbine was about a high school shooting in Littleton, Colo., the audience wound up being the community Littletown, the state of Colorado, the nation, and I venture to say even beyond that," he said. "Because of just the horrific nature of this, I think you can expect that your audience will be the people of Newtown, certainly, the people of Connecticut, but the nation watches. And the nation asks questions and wants to understand why and how these kinds of tragic events continue to occur."
Virginia Law Professor Richard Bonnie, a consultant to then-Virginia Gov. Tim Kane's review panel of the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, warned the Connecticut commission against feeling pressure to act too quickly in recommending policy changes in the wake of Newtown. He said it could take the group two years to ultimately finish its work.
Bonnie warned that acting prematurely could lead to "disproportionate responses," such as eroding privacy rights for the mentally ill.
Malloy, a Democrat, said Thursday he understands the process should be deliberative, but urged the members to forward any early ideas for possible legislative action this session. Bonnie said the Virginia Tech commission also forwarded earlier recommendations, and eventually a larger package of reforms.
The panel, led by Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson, includes mental health and public safety experts, such as the University of Connecticut police chief, the chief psychiatrist at Hartford Hospital's Institute for Living, and the director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. There is also a security consultant, a former state representative from Newtown and a Newtown Middle School teacher among the varied group.