Making sense of a senseless tragedy: The Sandy Hook Elementary School investigation, foreseeability and prevention
As a victim's rights attorney, I feel compelled to share my experience and knowledge pertaining to the tragedy that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School to help understand what occurred. I've handled more than 4,500 accident, wrongful death and crime victim cases as an attorney. I also hold an undergraduate degree in criminology and criminal justice, which includes the study of crime and why it occurs.
As we as a society try to come to terms with the sudden, unexpected carnage experienced at Sandy Hook Elementary School, we need to first get all of the pertinent facts and then try to understand the magnitude of the situation and its implications. Only then, can we move forward and try to prevent copycats and other similar situations from occurring.
Immediately after a crime, we have a period of uncertainty, and one where we try to make sense of a seemingly senseless crime. As the police release pieces of information, we try to put a puzzle together in our minds. The problem is that we may only have a few pieces of an otherwise complex puzzle.
What is the focus of the police investigation?
The general focus of the police is to investigate a crime and decide whether there is sufficient evidence to charge a person with committing a crime against the state. Our criminal justice system is not victim focused. If the police conclude that either a crime was not committed, that they can't prove a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, or that the person responsible is dead, their investigation generally ends.
This is why we have a civil justice system separate from a criminal justice system. In a civil case, the focus is generally on the crime itself. There, you look for answers like “why did this crime occur?”, “who could have prevented this crime from happening?”, “was this crime foreseeable?”, and “what could be done to prevent this type of crime from occurring in the future?” These are all important questions that ultimately lead to a greater understanding of the tragedy.
Rather than focusing on the criminal, in order to understand foreseeability and preventability of this type of tragedy, we need to focus on the crime itself and how or why it occurred. During the civil case investigation, we look to see who could have prevented the crime and who may have contributed to the crime. When analyzing the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, there are several avenues to explore in greater depth including mental health counselor negligence, failed gun control, gun owner negligence, inadequate security by school officials, and security system installation company negligence.
Mental health counselor negligence
Mental health counselors in most states are bound by a privilege not to reveal any communication with their patients. This encourages patients to openly express themselves to help resolve internal issues.
The rule of therapist-patient or doctor-patient confidentiality is not absolute. Most states require mental health counselors and physicians to violate this rule of confidentiality under certain circumstances. In Connecticut, where Sandy Hook Elementary School is located, when a physician or therapist determines that there is substantial risk of imminent physical injury by a person to himself or others, then the physician or therapist must contact authorities and breach the confidentiality.
If the shooter or his mother were undergoing any psychological or psychiatric counseling, or sought any medical attention in the last couple of years, their medical records should be examined in depth. This may provide insight into the motive of the shooter, the intricacies of the relationship between the shooter and his family, and whether there was any indication that the shooter presented a substantial risk of imminent physical injury to himself or others.
For example, in the recent mass murder at a Colorado movie theater, media outlets reported that shooter sent a notebook to his psychiatrist before the shootings detailing his intention to kill many people. If the psychiatrist knew about the shooter’s intentions and failed to alert authorities, the psychiatrist could be held liable for contributing to the incident since there may have been a duty to breach the confidentiality to prevent injury or death.
We should look deeply into the mental health of the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School to see whether there was any prior notice of his intent to commit this heinous crime.
There has been a surge of discussion and argument over gun control and the 2nd Amendment throughout the media and social media. These arguments may be premature since we do not know all of the facts. To blame gun control laws or call for banning certain weapons is simply premature at this juncture. This does not mean that gun control or lack of gun control could have contributed to this incident, but at this point its applicability may be misplaced. The ultimate questions are whether this tragedy was preventable or foreseeable and what can be done to prevent it from happening again.
Gun owner negligence
Most states hold gun owners liable if someone uses their gun and kills or injures another person. Guns are generally viewed as dangerous instruments. Under the law of the Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine, a gun owner can be found liable for damages if someone else borrows or uses their gun with permission and injures or kills another.
If the facts reveal that the shooter had open access to his mother's guns, that his mother let him use her guns despite his alleged mental health issues, that he did not have a gun license or training, or that his mother failed to adequately store the guns, then his mother may be liable civilly for contributing to this tragedy.
Although the shooter’s mother is deceased, her homeowner’s insurance (if she had) may be responsible to compensate the victims as a result of the mother's own negligence as the gun owner.
Inadequate security by school officials
The school may have also contributed to this tragedy. We need to know what happened immediately before the incident and study the past 3-5 years of security risk assessments at the school.
Based on news reports, the school recently installed a security system. Why? Schools have finite budgets. If they were going to install a new system, they likely had several meetings about the school's security, likely had a professional security risk assessment performed to determine the appropriate security needs for the school, may have received advice from various security companies and professionals, and may have had several security system bids prior to selecting the system installed at the school.
We also don't know if the system was operated properly by school staff, whether the system was fully operational, whether they followed instructions on how to use the system, or whether they were properly trained on how to use the system by the installation company.
A professional trained in crime prevention and analysis should be retained to investigate the school security system and actions by school employees and officials during the incident and in the months leading up to the incident.
Security system installation company negligence
A security system is only effective if the users know how to use it and/or it is properly designed or installed. The design of the security system should therefore be researched. Systems should not be arbitrarily selected. They should be selected from several options based on the security risk analysis of the needs of each customer.
Who selected the particular security system that was in place at the time of this tragedy? Did it replace another system? Why was that older system replaced? Did the school’s security needs increase or decrease over the past few years, and was the decision to change the security system based on a particular risk assessment or recommendation? All are questions that need further exploration.
What we learn from this and how we can move forward
As humans, we want and almost need answers to help make sense of what happened. We want to believe that these types of crime will not happen in our towns, to our friends, to our children. It is a natural desire to have a sense of security, even if that sense of security is false.
Once we learn many of the facts surrounding this tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, we can then discuss whether this horrific tragedy could have been prevented, if it was foreseeable, and how we can move forward to better protect our children.
We need to study this crime in depth and learn from it so we can help keep our children and ourselves safe.
Jason Turchin, Esq. is a Victim’s Rights Attorney based in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. He handles accident, injury, wrongful death and crime victim’s rights cases throughout the United States. Having handled more than 4,500 cases, Jason has worked on many high profile accidents and tragedies, and has consulted with several media outlets on other noteworthy cases. For more information, visit Jason at www.VictimAid.com or call (888) 99-VICTIM.
© 2012. Jason Turchin, Esq. All rights reserved.