By SUSAN HAIGH
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Connecticut lawmakers, under pressure to address the deadly Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, are moving closer to recommending possible changes to state laws and policies affecting guns, school security and mental health.
Three subcommittees to a special bipartisan legislative task force are in the process of identifying areas of consensus in hopes the full General Assembly will hold a vote later this month or early March. While the panels face a Friday deadline, their recommendations to legislative leaders may not be submitted until next week, given last weekend’s winter storm.
“We’re chugging along very well,” said Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, co-chairman of the school security subcommittee, who is optimistic lawmakers will produce a bipartisan package of changes.
“This is an issue that goes beyond everybody and anything and party,” she said. “It’s about a massacre, actually, of 26 wonderful people in our state. It cut to the quick. Everybody is affected by it. It would be very unseemly for people to play politics with this.”
Legislators’ deliberations come as hundreds of gun control advocates are expected to descend on the state Capitol grounds Thursday, demanding changes to Connecticut’s gun laws. Democratic and Republican legislative leaders are scheduled to attend the rally, as well as family members of Sandy Hook victims and survivors of other mass shootings. Actress Christine Baranski will host the event.
President Barack Obama on Tuesday used his prime time State of the Union address to call for action on gun control in the wake of the Dec. 14 Newtown shootings. A Sandy Hook teacher, Newtown police detectives and the Newtown first selectman were in the audience for the president’s speech.
“When so many people say to you the world is watching, you do feel a little pressure,” said state Rep. Tim Ackert, R-Coventry, a member of the school security subcommittee.
Ackert’s panel on Wednesday reached consensus on several suggestions made by members of the public and various experts. The tentative list includes resurrecting a state grant to local schools for security improvements and requiring districts to create school safety committees and craft security plans that include various best practices.
There were no recommendations made to arm teachers or to require that districts hire school safety officers or security guards. Such issues will be left to the regular legislative committees to tackle in the remaining months of the legislative session. A week after the shootings, National Rifle Association chief executive officer Wayne LaPierre said such violence could have been prevented if the teachers had been armed or if armed police officers were posted in the schools.
“That wasn’t discussed because there’s not going to be a consensus,” said Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, the subcommittee’s other co-chairman.
Some members of the subcommittee made it clear they are concerned about mandating one-size-fits-all solutions for school districts. Also, some raised concerns about the state requiring districts to enact a certain program and then not providing the necessary funding.
“What we got from the school systems is they’re looking for guidance,” Boucher said.
On Wednesday, lawmakers received some last-minute advice from experts. They were told of some relatively inexpensive ways to strengthen school security. David Bernstein, president and forensic psychologist at Forensic Consultants LLC in Norwalk, said many schools he has visited use cheap, hollow core doors. He suggested districts replace them with solid core doors, which can be easily found at a hardware store. He also suggested installing thin ballistic grade glass in the doors.
“You’ve increased barrier security 20-fold, at least,” he said.
Bernstein said an event like the shooting at Sandy Hook is unusual, calling it “a black swan” event. He said federal statistics on school shootings show 95 percent of shooters attend the school they attack. Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old Newtown shooter who also killed his mother and himself, had attended Sandy Hook years earlier as a young child.
Also, Bernstein said 75 percent of school shooters report being bullied as a motivation for their sprees. He suggested state lawmakers build upon an existing law that requires districts to create internal committees to monitor bullying activity. He said those same committees could be a repository for information about troubled kids, such as reports of a student’s disturbing drawings, threats or outbursts.
Bernstein said it is important that schools create a system that screens students who exhibit “red flag behaviors” to determine whether they might be a threat. He also discouraged districts from having zero tolerance policies, which often threaten expulsion for certain bad behaviors. He said such policies dissuade people from coming forward to report problem students. Bernstein suggested districts instead create an inexpensive virtual mail box where people can call in anonymous tips about a student’s troubling behavior.