Oct 31, 2013
07:50 AM
The Connecticut Story

Matt DeRienzo: Tax Dollars Should Supplement Sandy Hook Victims’ Fund

Matt DeRienzo: Tax Dollars Should Supplement Sandy Hook Victims’ Fund

Tom Kelly IV/New Haven Register

A memorial near the Sandy Hook firehouse in Newtown, and the entrance road to Sandy Hook Elementary School, as seen early on the morning of Dec. 20, 2012.

Penn State announced last week that it will pay $59.7 million to 26 sexual abuse victims of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

In Connecticut, families of - coincidentally - 26 victims who lost their lives in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown last year will receive $281,000 each. Twelve surviving children who witnessed the murders will receive $20,000 each, and two surviving teachers who were injured will receive $75,000 each.

Two completely different situations, of course, on many levels.

The Penn State payouts were to living victims, made under the threat of lawsuits, paid mostly by the university’s general liability insurance policies. Negligence and cover-ups are alleged. Multiple people in positions of authority might have stopped the abuse from happening and did not.

Payments to the families of Sandy Hook victims came from a charitable fund that raised more than $7 million from private individuals in the wake of the shooting. It has nothing to do with litigation, and there’s no government entity or taxpayer dollars involved.

And how do you put a price tag on either situation?

But the disparity begs the question: Have we, as a community, state, nation, done enough to help those most directly affected by what happened in Newtown?

Why should the families of children who were victims of something horrific at a public elementary school in Connecticut get 1/10th of the financial support of children who were victims of something horrific at a publicly funded university in Pennsylvania?

Why does one public institution pay victims, but not the other? Is it solely the threat of lawsuits in Penn State’s case? Or are we saying that there is absolutely nothing that the public schools, the town, the police, the state could have done to stop or prevent Sandy Hook? (Even as we have spent the past year talking about and passing legislation related to gun control, mental health treatment and school security in hopes of preventing the next one.)

Penn State is an institution with a lot of money. It can afford to pay $59 million to help a group of young men it failed miserably.

So can the state of Connecticut, with an annual budget of more than $20 billion.

We can’t bring the Sandy Hook families’ children back. We probably can’t even give a decent answer to the question of why this happened or how it could have been prevented.

But we have the resources and the responsibility to do better than $281,000 for each family whose lives, and in many cases, livelihood, were destroyed -  families who have given of their time and experiences to help shape public policy and help the community at-large heal even as their worlds have been destroyed. We can do better than $20,000 for children who have decades of psychological treatment and healing ahead of them. And we should be doing something for first responders and educators so torn apart by what they saw that day that they cannot work.

The cost would be a fraction of the sums of money we sink into elective public works projects, infrastructure and subsidies of big business that provide a questionable return on taxpayer investment. The mechanism is simple: Sponsor special legislation in the Connecticut General Assembly earmarking whatever dollar amount experts in this field think makes sense. Benchmarking against the average Penn State settlement and similar cases would be a good starting point.

Should every victim of a crime that takes place in a public building or associated with a public institution be compensated? No. If there ever was a clear exception, though, it would be what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012. The impact on the victims’ families, survivors, first responders and educators is mind-boggling. And the need for our state and nation to do something about what happened that day has been clear. Part of that response should be to take care of those most directly affected.

Matt DeRienzo is group editor of Digital First Media in Connecticut, including Connecticut Magazine, the New Haven Register, The Middletown Press and The Register Citizen of Torrington. He can be reached at mderienzo@21st-centurymedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattderienzo.


Matt DeRienzo: Tax Dollars Should Supplement Sandy Hook Victims’ Fund

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