Former superintendent lends her aid at Newtown

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Griswold - posted Wed., Jan. 30, 2013
Retired Griswold superintendent Elizabeth Osga traveled to Newtown to help in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy. Photo by Janice Steinhagen.
Retired Griswold superintendent Elizabeth Osga traveled to Newtown to help in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy. Photo by Janice Steinhagen.

As a former superintendent of Griswold schools, Elizabeth Osga had dealt with tragedies and deaths of students or staff members, and with the resulting upset to the community’s equilibrium. But the Dec. 14 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School was beyond the experience of any administrator she knew. “Add the unexpected element and the intentional violence, and multiply that by 26. That’s taking it off the charts,” she said.

The murder of 20 students and six staff members by a young shooter stunned the community and focused the world’s spotlight on the small western Connecticut town of Newtown. As the news unfolded, Osga thought of her friend, Newtown Superintendent Janet Robinson, whom she had mentored during Robinson’s first superintendent assignment in nearby Preston. Guessing that Robinson might be overwhelmed, she called up the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents and told them she was available to assist. “They said, ‘Your offer is exactly what she needs,’” Osga said. “So I packed my suitcase and headed for Newtown.”

Osga spent three weeks filling in at the school district’s central office, sifting through thousands of e-mails, fielding phone calls and offering a reassuring voice where it was needed. “In this kind of event, your staff and families want some kind of communication,” she said. Robinson, who was engulfed in attending funeral and memorial services for the victims, was unavailable for the routine contacts of everyday school life, she said.

Osga helped to fill the gap. “The principals [of Newtown’s other five schools] were very anxious to be able to pick up the phone and talk to somebody,” Osga said. “I could do it with the voice of a superintendent. It’s nothing that any superintendent wouldn’t do, but if you’re running your own district, you can’t.”

The Newtown school office, located in Town Hall, was closed to the press in the tragedy’s aftermath, Osga said. It served as a central station for mental health workers who volunteered their counseling services. While most offers were well-intentioned, Osga said she was taken aback that some offers of help had strings attached.

“This has become a huge research opportunity,” she said. People expressed interest in writing books about the event or compiling data, ostensibly to predict and prevent future tragedies. A process was set up to screen all such requests. “We wanted to protect the children and staff,” she said.

Other well-intentioned offers were simpler: a free-skate day at a local rink for the surviving Sandy Hook students, or offers to treat the kids to lunch. Osga said that these were really efforts to satisfy the donor’s own needs, not the children’s. A firm decision was made that “the children of the school could not be used as therapy for anybody,” she said.

In the tragedy’s wake, Newtown was also inundated with massive quantities of donated objects, ranging from teddy bears to books to perishable fruit baskets. “And of course [people] sent 26 of everything,” she said. Most of the donations – literally tons of objects - had to be warehoused; all had to be checked by the FBI. “They don’t need books or supplies,” Osga said. “What they needed was to get back to the comforting routine – the pledge of allegiance, the morning routines.” She encouraged people who want to help to make a monetary donation to the Sandy Hook Recovery Fund.

Osga helped develop a job description for a recovery coordinator, who would take over some of the long-term tasks facing Newtown relating to mental health, security, memorializing the event and long-range plans for the Sandy Hook building itself.

A retired former principal was tapped to lead Sandy Hook Elementary at its new Chalk Hill location. “She’s a really strong-willed lady,” said Osga. “She’s going to provide the emotional support to stabilize them and move them forward.”

Osga served at the helm of Griswold schools from 1999 to 2008, after spending 24 years in the Stonington district as a teacher and administrator. She also served four years in the Lyme-Old Lyme school district just prior to her retirement.

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