Remembering the Newtown School Massacre One Year Ago 12/13/2013

by Clyde Weiss  |  December 13, 2013

AFSCME members join the nation in honoring the 20 children and six adult educators of Sandy Hook Elementary School slain in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012.

Many of the police officers, emergency dispatchers and other public service workers who responded that day are members of AFSCME. Our members rushed toward danger, helped children, parents and townspeople and, even as they dealt with their own grief and trauma, aided the recovery effort in the days and weeks that followed.

In the moments immediately following the first call of “shots fired,” the Newtown Police Department reacted with professionalism and heroism. All 44 officers and employees are members of the Newtown Police Union Local 3153 (Connecticut Council of Police/AFSCME Council 15). Approximately 14 of them went directly to the school, putting themselves into harm’s way without hesitation.

In recognition of their actions responding to the massacre, the Newtown local this October received the 2013 Law Enforcement Award at the AFSCME Public Safety Congress.

Also responding were public service workers from many other departments and agencies. They included workers represented by AFSCME Council 4. Among them were the Newtown school nurses of Local 1302-215 who comforted and protected the children and provided medical assistance.

The Newtown police dispatchers of AFSCME Local 1303-136 and the state police dispatchers of AFSCME Local 562 also acted with urgency and professionalism. Members of the State Social and Human Service Professional Employees AFSCME Local 2663 provided on-site counseling to those who needed it. Public works employees of Local 1303-200 also played important roles in the response effort.

That effort continued long after the shootings. Police officers from Council 15 locals throughout the state contributed their time to direct Newtown traffic, to take over shifts from Newtown officers, and to perform other regular police work while the town’s officers attended funerals and worked through their grief. As one AFSCME official said, “it was like a brotherhood.”

Town and state troopers were assigned to help the families of those who lost loved ones.

In the shooting’s aftermath, Council 15 provided health services to many officers and other public service workers who needed it. The union also encouraged emergency responders to attend peer-support team meetings to deal with their raw emotions.

Outpourings of support flooded in from every corner of America. More than 6,000 AFSCME members nationwide have signed an online sympathy card for their Newtown brothers and sisters involved in the response effort, and to the Newtown community.

Expressions of sympathy gave way to direct action as members of AFSCME Councils 4 and 15 – working through a coalition of unions – pressed for changes in the law to ensure that public service workers and volunteers could get additional mental health support if they needed it. In March, the state Legislature passed a bill creating a charitable fund to cover medical costs for both physical and emotional impairment due to the shooting.

Many officers who responded to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting continue to suffer emotionally. Some were unable to return to work for extended periods.  That’s why AFSCME and other coalition members will continue pressing the Legislature to enable the state’s workers’ compensation system to cover treatment costs for mental illnesses resulting from future workplace traumas. The system did that until lawmakers slashed benefits 20 years ago.

In addition, first responders employed by the state –  and other state employees who were significantly involved with the direct response to the shooting – will be credited with 40 hours of comp time under an agreement reached this month between the state, AFSCME and five other unions representing state employees. The agreement, which is intended to recognize the extraordinary nature of the tragedy. has been submitted to the General Assembly for final approval.

However, Newtown employees who took sick and vacation leave to deal with personal matters related to the shootings were not included in the agreement. AFSCME is still pushing to get Newtown officials to provide similar coverage to their employees in recognition of the extraordinary nature of the tragedy.

The Sandy Hook Elementary School gun massacre is a tragedy that should never happen again. Our children and educators deserve safe school environments. But when tragedy does occur, public service workers like those in Newtown, Conn., will do their jobs with professionalism and heroism.

Governor Malloy has called for houses of worship to ring their bells 26 times on Dec. 14, once for every victim lost that day. Wherever you are, take a moment to remember those victims, their families, and also those who came to help in any way that they could.