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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES
Victim's Parents Speak Out; Newtown Students Return to School; Teachers Dealing with Trauma and Grief; Remembering Noah Pozner
Aired December 18, 2012 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Erin, thanks very much.
Good evening, everyone. We are live once again tonight from Newtown, Connecticut. A town where many students returned to school today.
Schools reopened, of course, with the exception of Sandy Hook Elementary, the school that's now a crime scene. The students of Sandy Hook will go back to school after the holidays in a different building some eight miles away, with 20 bright young faces missing from the halls and classrooms.
Everything is different now. The children of this town are facing a new reality, doing things they never should have to do at this young age. Like writing good-bye letters to their friends.
We told you last night about 6-year-old Jack Pinto who was burred yesterday. At the funeral, a note from his friend John reads, "Jack, you are my best friend. We had fun together. I will miss you. I will talk to you in my prayers. I love you, Jack. Love, John."
There were two more funerals today for two more 6-year-old children. Jessica Rekos and James Mattioli were laid to rest today. We will remember them and tonight we honor them. Our hearts and thoughts are with their families and their friends. And we wish peace and strength for all the people whose lives Jessica and James touched in just six short years.
COOPER (voice-over): James Mattioli was known as Jay. Just 6 years old, he was full of energy. He loved baseball, basketball, arm wrestling, but he especially loved swimming. His parents used to say he swam like a fish. And he loved to visit his grandparents and swim in their pools.
James also used to love to ride his bike. No training wheels for him and he was proud of it. He tried to wear shorts and T-shirts all year round, loved to use hair gel in order to spike up his brown hair. He was a little boy who looked forward to growing up. He liked to sing at the top of his lungs and would ask, how old do I have to be before I can sing on a stage?
He also wanted to know when he'd be old enough to order a foot long ham sandwich at Subway, one of his favorite places to stop for dinner.
James was born four weeks prematurely, and his family used to joke, that he came into the world early because he was hungry. His parents say he was an early riser, always the first to wake the family up, always eager to start the day. And at the end of the day, he loved nothing more than to cuddle up with this mom under a blanket on the couch.
James also adored spending time with his dad. In his obituary, his family writes, "If dad was outside, James wanted to be right there with him. Their love of one another was one of a kind. And James was his dad's mini look-alike."
Jessica Rekos loved everything about horses. She'd spend her free time reading books about them, watching movies about them, drawing horses, even writing stories about them. Six years old, she was waiting for the day she could get her very own horse. Her parents, both raised in Newtown, called her a beautiful, creative little girl who spent time writing in her journals and making up stories. They spoke to ABC News.
KRISTA REKOS, MOTHER OF JESSICA REKOS: I found a little journal, and I don't even know when it's from. But I just opened the book and it was exactly what I needed because it says I love you so much, mama. It's like she knew that we were going to need something to help us get through this. But that's just like what an amazing girl she was.
COOPER: Jessica also became passionate about orca whales after watching the movie "Free Willy." She said her dream was to see a real orca and just a few months ago, she was able to see one in person at a trip to SeaWorld.
Jessica has two younger brothers, and was known as the little CEO of the family, the rock who kept everyone together. In a statement, her parents write, "We cannot imagine our life without her. We are mourning her loss, sharing our beautiful memories we have of her, and trying to help her brother Travis understand why he can't play with his best friend. We are devastated."
COOPER: Two more little children laid to rest.
One thing that we've been doing here is really trying to keep focus on the lives that have been lost. We're not focusing on the killer because he's gone, and frankly, we don't want him to be remembered. Certainly not by name.
We've tried to be careful and respectful of what the families here are going through. Tried not to ever intrude on their suffering. But after Sunday night's program, we got a call from the McDonnell family. Seven-year-old Grace McDonnell's family. I spoke with Grace's parents Chris and Lynn at length. They told me about who Grace was. The light of their family. A little girl who loved school and her brother Jack. A talented young artist who lived life to the fullest. Made the most of every day of her far too short life. As amazed of the strength that Grace's parents showed they say it is Grace who is guiding them through these difficult days.
Here's our conversation. Tonight, we honor Grace, we will remember her.
COOPER (on camera): What do you want people to know about Grace?
LYNN MCDONNELL, MOTHER OF GRACE MCDONNELL: Well, Grace had such a great spirit. She was a kind and gentle soul. And she was just the light and love of our family. She was just truly a special, special little girl. That we loved and she loved her brother so much. And she loved her school Sandy Hook, in fact, this week I was telling somebody she had a stomach ache one day, and I said to her, why don't you just stay home with mom and she said, no way, I have too much fun there and I don't want to miss anything.
She would skip to get on the bus. It wasn't even a -- you know, every morning it was the backpack was packed the night before and ready to get on the bus in the morning and head off to the bus. We would blow kisses every morning to each other. And I remember that morning, putting her on the bus, she had a habit of blowing kisses but then she'd give me a big little liver lip like --
But then -- I knew she was so happy to go off and get there. So -- I'd like to say is that she was at a place that she loved, and so we take comfort in that, that we know she was in a place that she really loved.
COOPER: And with friends?
L. MCDONNELL: And with friends.
CHRIS MCDONNELL, FATHER OF GRACE MCDONNELL: And with friends. People that loved her. And that's I think the whole community and the school and the teachers, they're all -- they're all raising your child.
L. MCDONNELL: Exactly.
C. MCDONNELL: And it's a special place.
L. MCDONNELL: It is. And I take comfort that she was with all her friends. And I just envision all of them holding hands. And they're all together up there. And they're up there with their wonderful principal. I mean, they have so many people up there helping them. And I said to somebody, like -- just Sandy Hook, we have so many angels and so many bright stars shining over all of us in this town right now. And each one of those children was -- you look at their pictures, they were so beautiful. And they all had a story and a talent. COOPER: What did you say to Jack? I mean, how did you -- because there's a lot of parents right now who are trying to figure out what to say to their children all around the world about this.
C. MCDONNELL: Telling him was by far the toughest thing to do. And I think what we did was truthful, honest, words that he could understand. And hoping that he'll be able to process this and how we'd help to guide him to process this over the long journey ahead.
COOPER: You met with President Obama yesterday. What was that like?
L. MCDONNELL: I did. You know, I know he's the leader of our country, but when he walked into that room, it was a very private meeting. But when he walked in the room to greet us, it was just a dad. He's just a dad coming in to meet a dad and a mom and a son. And we really felt that. We felt his support and it was really -- it was really special. And we shared some special things about Grace with him and her art.
COOPER: You brought him something?
L. MCDONNELL: We did. We told him that Grace had two things in common with him. Their love for Martha's Vineyard and Hawaii. And Grace's dream was to live on the beach and be a painter. And so we offered him one of her paintings, which he said he would treasure. So that gave us great comfort, too. But really just felt like a dad surrounding us and feeling our pain.
And, you know, when he walked in the room, I realized he has to go to so many families today, and this is not the first time he's had to do this. So I have to look at him and pray for him for strength.
COOPER: I was talking to you before we began. And one of the things you were saying is, you don't want to have hate or anger in your heart?
L. MCDONNELL: No, I had said that to Jack that, it's OK to be angry because, sure, we have anger and we're upset and we don't know why. But I told Jack that he could never live with hate. Grace didn't have an ounce of hate in her. And so we have to live through Grace and realize that hate is not how our family is. And not -- certainly not how Grace is. And I know all those beautiful little children, they didn't have any hate in them either. So we'll just take the lead from them, and we will not go down that road. But we'll let them guide us.
COOPER: It's a hard thing, though, isn't it, to not feel that?
C. MCDONNELL: We're going to go on and we're going to use her positive energy to help guide us forward.
L. MCDONNELL: One of Gracie's favorite things to paint or draw was a peace sign. And she just had a birthday in November when she turned 7 and she requested -- I said, what would you like your cake to look like, Grace? And she said, I want a purple cake with a turquoise peace sign and polka dots. And sure enough, her cake was purple, turquoise and polka dots, it was totally Grace. It was so colorful.
C. MCDONNELL: It's one of a kind, too.
L. MCDONNELL: And it was -- she was all about peace, she really was. And I was looking the morning after, I was in the bathroom, and I used to dry her hair next to the window. And the window would fog up and she would write notes in the window to me. And on Saturday morning, I was standing at that window in the bathroom, it had fogged up and I looked, and there was her peace sign in the window. And I was like, that's a sign from my Grace. And the paint above it said Grace's Mom, and she drew a heart. So she was all about peace and gentleness and kindness.
COOPER: You went to the funeral home, and you were telling me the story of she had a -- she has a white casket?
L. MCDONNELL: She does. And when we walked in the room, it was the first time we were -- had been able to be with her. And when we walked in the room, and we saw that white casket, it just -- it felt like the floor was falling out beneath you and your breath was taken away.
But earlier in the morning, I decided because Grace loved art so much, we were packing sharpies in our pockets. And when we got in, after we did our big family hug with Grace, we sat down and we busted out the sharpies. And we decided that we were -- at first I envisioned maybe a little heart. But by the time we were done, there wasn't an inch of white. It was so covered with all the things that she loved.
And her brother, we wrote her notes and her nicknames and all the things that she loved. Cupcakes.
C. MCDONNELL: The places we've been together.
L. MCDONNELL: Ice cream cones, lighthouses, seagulls. And we were saying she is laughing at us right now because our artwork was terrible.
But when we left the room it was certainly so hard to leave her because that would be the last time that we would be able to be with her. We had to take great joy in knowing that when we walked in there it was so white and our breath was taken away. But when we walked out of there, it was like we had joy again. It had so much color.
C. MCDONNELL: Color.
L. MCDONNELL: And it was Grace. It was so Grace.
COOPER: You were able to give her things as well?
L. MCDONNELL: Yes. We brought her her favorite pocketbook. And we had seashells and flip-flops and sunglasses. And she loved to cook. We had a frying pan. And she loved music. She has Taylor --
C. MCDONNELL: Notes.
L. MCDONNELL: Taylor Swift Christmas song in there. She has her New York -- she her dad's New York Yankee hat. So she had all the things that she loved with her. So we took -- we took -- we had peace when we left last night.
COOPER: It's got to be, I mean, hard not to have been to actually see her?
L. MCDONNELL: Well, at first I thought that. And I had questioned maybe wanting to see her, but then I thought, she was just so, so beautiful, and she wouldn't want us to remember her looking any different than her perfect hair bow on the side of her beautiful long blond hair. And so we'll take comfort in looking, we have so many beautiful pictures of her. We'll take comfort in remembering her beautiful smile and her -- I'll remember her blowing the kisses that day, getting off in the bus, going off to school.
COOPER: I want to thank the McDonnells for inviting us into their home. It was a true honor getting to hear about Grace.
After that interview, I gave them my number, and I said that if there's anything that they forgot to say, anything that they wanted to say that they thought of later to just let me know, and they should just contact us. This morning, we got a note from Mrs. McDonnell, Lynn, that she wanted them to share here.
I'm not going to share you the whole note with you but some of it was private but she wrote, "When Anderson visited our house I showed him one of our picture books from Martha's Vineyard. I've always said that I took my photograph to be my children's eyes. I wanted them to remember everything from our adventures together. And now I'm not only going to be Grace's eyes but I'm going to be her voice. But I feel fearless. I will never feel any pain greater than I do right now. I'm going to take on the world for our Gracie girl. For I myself have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Jack and Grace always said, you have to conquer your fear. I'm doing it now for both of them."
Such strength. I will not forget the McDonnells or their amazing Grace.
You heard Lynn talk about giving President Obama one of Gracie's pictures. She gave me the same picture. A Xerox copy of it. This is an owl that Grace had drawn and President Obama said that he would cherish it. And I'm certainly going to frame this and cherish it as well.
Here are a few more pictures as we go to break.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) COOPER: A look at one of the many memorials for the victims here in Newtown tonight. As we mentioned earlier, for the first time today since Friday's tragedy Newtown students returned to classrooms. Every school but Sandy Hook Elementary has reopened.
The question is, what should be routine, of course, is no more. Returning students and staff are met by more police officers and counselors than there were before. For some today, it was their first chance really to talk about what happened with their friends and with their teachers.
Kyung Lah joins me now with more.
It had to have been an extraordinarily difficult day for these students?
KYUNG LAH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: A difficult day but a really necessary day. And we spoke to parents and students who were returning, and what we were hearing from them, Anderson, is that parents say they're eager to get back to the routine. They know that kids like routine. If you're a parent, you know that's what your kids want.
The students say when they were on the bus it was extraordinarily quiet. They were starting to have those quiet conversations inside the school. An 11-year-old boy told us he actually felt better being in school. He felt protected there. His teacher was reaching out to them. Those counseling sessions were happening inside the school. As a sign of comfort, it was across Newtown and in the surrounding communities, police cars at every single school. At the high school I was at here in Newtown, three police cars, and the students say they made them feel better.
COOPER: Yes. Kyung Lah, it's still so impossible to imagine. I appreciate the reporting. Thank you very much.
It's been particularly difficult for -- obviously, for students to go back to school. Dr. David Schonfeld is a crisis counselor who gave a presentation to teachers in Newtown about how to talk to children at this incredibly difficult time. He's the director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, and he joins me now, right now live.
Thank you very for being with us.
COOPER: You met with teachers and administrators. And basically all employees of the school system. What did you -- what was your message to them?
DAVID SCHONFELD, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL CENTER FOR SCHOOL AND BEREAVEMENT: Yes. Well, there are a couple of messages that I had wanted to get across. The first thing is to recognize how heroic it is for them to be able to help students in a time like this. Because we have to remember all of the staff -- they're grieving some of their own members of the staff. They're definitely grieving the loss of the children that they were close to.
SCHONFELD: And they care about. And they're also impacted by going through a traumatic event. So the first thing is to recognize what they are doing and how courageous that is.
COOPER: One of the things I heard you say, too, is that it's OK for -- and you told them it's OK for them to show emotion when talking with the students?
SCHONFELD: Right. A lot of times we don't want to upset children so we don't want to show them that we're upset. But really, the kids are already upset. They already know about this. And what we want to do is help them be able to cope with those feelings, but if we never show them distress, we can't model for them how to cope with it. So seeing some distress among adults that they care about, particularly when it's followed by suggestions about how to deal with that and cope with it effectively is really helpful for them to start to feel.
COOPER: What else did you want them to know?
SCHONFELD: Well, I also wanted them to know that we had to change some of the expectations of what we could accomplish in terms of learning over the next week. I told the teachers that really we have to meet the students where they are right now. And we also have to meet the teachers and the other school staff where they are. And so I told them that as far as I was concerned there was really only one lesson plan that they needed to teach before they broke for the New Year's. And that was to make sure that the children knew they were safe, and that they cared about them, and they were going to care for them.
COOPER: And I guess for a number of these students, this is obviously the first time they've had to face death. That they've had to deal with this at all.
SCHONFELD: It is for many of the children. Unfortunately, we know that about 9 out of 10 children are going to experience a significant loss of a death of a family member or friend by the time they complete high school. So for many children, it will not be a new experience, but obviously, this is a profound experience for anyone.
COOPER: And how do you -- I mean, do you talk to kids? Or I guess part of the lesson is that not all teachers will be counselors. That if somebody needs your extensive conversation, there are other people to refer them to?
SCHONFELD: I think it's important that we underscore that what we're asking the teaching staff to do, and the rest of the staff and the school, the support staff, is to create a supportive environment. Not to provide counseling. It doesn't need to be -- it's not their responsibility to provide therapy. There are others in the school that will do that. And others in the community that have that role. But what we want from the school staff is to be -- is to be able to create a safe and supportive environment.
COOPER: You've obviously dealt with this sort of thing before. How do you think this community is doing?
SCHONFELD: Well, I arrived here Saturday night. And actually the American Federation of Teachers reached out to me on Friday and asked me to come and help their staff, and then I arrived here on Saturday. And I was greeted immediately, you know, by the commissioner of education, Stephen Pryor. And we met well into the night about what to do. And then when I came and actually was able to meet with the superintendent, Janet Robinson, and the other staff, I was really impressed by the concern, the caring, and the profound commitment that they have for these children.
COOPER: It's a very close-knit community. Dave, I appreciate you being with us. Thank you very much.
SCHONFELD: Thank you very much.
COOPER: It's been a long day for you.
Up next, a special mission for Noah, 6-year-old Noah Pozner laid to rest yesterday. His cousin couldn't make it to the funeral but wanted to make sure he got his goodbye letter. Ahead, see who answered the call for help and made sure that Noah got that letter and we'll talk to Noah's uncle.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ROB MANNA, FIREFIGHTER, NEWTOWN HOOK AND LADDER COMPANY: The look of fear most certainly in everybody's eyes, that day I'll never forget.
RAY CORBO, FIREFIGHTER, NEWTOWN HOOK AND LADDER COMPANY: And that goes for for first responders. Law enforcement, everybody. The sounds of sirens just kept coming and coming and coming. And it seems like it never ended that day.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: Well, there's 20 families here in Newtown face the unimaginable task of burying their 6- and 7-year-old children. We want to share with you a poignant story about the funeral of Noah Pozner, 6 years old, laid to rest yesterday.
Noah's mother wanted to bury handwritten notes from family members with her son. Noah's cousin Ethan almost -- also 6 years old, almost 6 years old, lives in Seattle, he made a card for Noah. The problem is getting it to Connecticut in time for the funeral. On Sunday, Ethan's mom took to Twitter looking for help and soon enough got this message from JetBlue Airline.
"We're sorry for your loss. Please DM us your best contact phone number and we'll have someone reach out to you." With JetBlue's help Ethan's final to his cousin made it to Connecticut in time to be buried with Noah. Ethan's mom shared the card on Twitter. She wrote, "Noah is shown with a heart body and the flower represents life. Life in general." Inside it says, "I love you, Noah."
Joining me now is Alexis Haller, Noah's -- Noah Pozner's uncle.
Alexis, appreciate you joining us.
ALEXIS HALLER, NOAH POZNER'S UNCLE: Thank you.
COOPER: So just a little bit, what do you want people to know about Noah?
HALLER: Well, Noah is a great kid. He was smart as a whip. Bit of a maverick.
COOPER: Mischievous, I heard.
HALLER: Mischievous. Loved his family more than anything else. When his mom would say, I love you, Noah, would respond, not as much as I love you. And he loved his siblings, too. And he had a twin sister.
COOPER: They were very, very close.
HALLER: Extremely close. When they were babies, they would babble each other from their cribs and --
HALLER: Yes, and all sorts of trouble, and inseparable.
COOPER: I heard he used to tell his other siblings that he worked at a taco factory?
HALLER: That's right. Yes, he would -- pretended that he worked at a taco factory. And they would ask him questions about it and wouldn't really respond. He just --
You know, he would just kind of give them a look. And -- as if he knew more than they knew.
COOPER: That's great. I love that story.
HALLER: Yes. But, you know, Noah was also just a normal little kid. You know, really normal kid. I mean, he loved Mario Brothers and animals and, you know, Legos and superheroes, and all the stuff that a normal 6-year-old loves. And -- you know, that's Noah.
COOPER: I know you wanted to talk about -- there's some scams out there that your -- the family is obviously concerned about. What are you hearing? HALLER: That's correct. Today, we found out that there was a domain name set up in Noah's name. And we since challenged that and it's been taking off (INAUDIBLE) go daddy. But we also were made aware of an e-mail scam where somebody was --
COOPER: Oops, sorry, sorry.
HALLER: Purporting to -- somebody was purporting to solicit money on behalf of the family.
COOPER: That's unbelievable.
HALLER: Yes. It was going to an address in the Bronx. There are misspellings. You have to look at it carefully and also information, it sounds like potentially family friends.
COOPER: But it's not?
HALLER: It's not. I guess, we want to get it out there for the public, if people want to contribute, that they're aware to be careful.
COOPER: You have set up a web site?
HALLER: That's right, we set up a website, the web site is noahsrkofhopefund.com.
COOPER: We'll bring that up on the screen.
HALLER: There's also a few other friends. Friends of Maddie, for example, that was set up. That is a legitimate donations site. But there are also ones that are scams, and we want to get that out to the public and we also want to get it out, frankly, to the other victims' families.
COOPER: To watch out for that?
HALLER: To watch out for that. Maybe get friends to look for domain names. Look out for scams.
COOPER: I saw a Twitter page set up for another child that I thought was real at first. I contacted the family and they don't know anything about it. So there are these people out there, the idea that anybody could do this is just so disgusting.
But I'm glad you cleared it up and again, we're putting the correct web site's name on our screen. What -- it's a dumb question, how are you holding up? How is the family holding up?
HALLER: The family is devastated. It was the worst four days of our lives. It's kind of like you're in a waking nightmare, never experienced anything remotely close to it. Felt like four years. And as bad as -- as devastated as the family was, the parents, you know, they were suffering so much more.
COOPER: Of course. HALLER: Everybody was suffering so much. It's been a horrible, horrible -- you know, but we're sticking together and we're coming together as a family very strongly.
And we want to, you know, focus on making something positive out of it. And frankly, the only positive parts to the last two days. There are two things. First when I see Noah's siblings, Arielle and Sophia, they both survived.
COOPER: They were in the school?
HALLER: They were in the school. Sophia, as I understand it, her teacher put all the kids in the closet and shushed them. The killer opened the door and thought they were no kids there so didn't find them.
Whenever I see there with the family, I just see them, that brings me joy that they made it. The other thing that brings me joy is just the outpouring of support from everybody, friends community, the country, everything.
And that's made a huge difference. And, finally, the other thing that kind of got us through was certain people that played kind of guardian angels. We had a state trooper assigned to us, Sean Hickey who is kind of a rock for us.
And a Houston doctor, Dr. Laura Asher, another rock. For families to get through this, you need those rocks and you need winds -- you know wind at your back to kind of push you forward. We got that from friends and the community.
COOPER: We know there are a lot of difficult weeks and months and even years ahead. I appreciate you talking tonight. I wish you the best.
HALLER: Thank you. Appreciate it.
COOPER: Thank you very much, Alexis.
Again, the web site is noaharkofhopefund.eventbright.com. We'll put that up on our website andersoncooper.com at 360.com. Five days ago, the violence that shattered this community is raising some familiar questions about mass killings.
Investigators are digging through the gunman's medical history for possible clues. We're going to talk to our chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta about that ahead. We'll be right back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHAEL ZILUCK, NEWTOWN, CONNECTICUT STUDENT: At the same time, I'm feeling happy to be back at school because the whole think just, everyone will be together. We'll probably be a good thing for the victims as well -- the siblings, the family of the victims. (END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: One of the Newtown students talked about his mixed feelings about returning to class today. As we mentioned Sandy Hook Elementary remains closed, of course, but other schools in Newtown reopened their doors.
The tragedy here is sparking, obviously, a nationwide dialogue on issues like gun control, mental health, and school security. Today, the National Rifle Association announced a news conference set for Friday and released this statement saying in part.
The National Rifle Association in America is made up of four million moms and dads, sons and daughters, and we were shocked, saddened and heartbroken by the news of the horrific and senseless murders in Newtown.
Out of respect for the families and as a matter of common decency, we have given time for mourning, prayer and a full investigation of the facts before commenting. The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.
What exactly that means, we're not sure. We'll see more what they say on Friday. To making sure this never happens again, there's obviously also a top priority for many here in this community.
Lillian Bittman joins me now. She is the former chairwoman of the Newtown Board of Education and a former Sandy Hook parent. You were at a wake earlier for Daniel Barden -- you were a friend of the family --
LILLIAN BITTMAN, FORMER CHAIRWOMAN, NEWTOWN BOARD OF EDUCATION: That's the family we're closest to and the family very much wanted me to deliver something tonight. They were interviewed on another network and they're -- I'm sorry.
COOPER: That's OK.
BITTMAN: Their daughter, I had a newspaper -- one of my sons is friends with James. And their daughter was on the Sandy Hook School newspaper that I ran. And she had wanted to ask President Obama a question when they met before the vigil.
BITTMAN: And she was -- one of my best friend's daughters. She was one of these gung ho kids and she obviously was intimidated. They were hoping that President Obama would hear her words tonight if we could get them read on air.
So she gave me a letter, unfortunately, there were too many people at the wake for me to actually get up to see the family. So the letter was passed back to me. But this is what she wrote and if you could read it because I can't --
COOPER: Family gave permission?
BITTMAN: The family wants -- they told me to bring it to you.
COOPER: It says my name is Natalie Barden, and I wanted to tell the president that only police officers and the military should have guns. If people want to do it as a sport then they should go to a shooting range and the guns should not be able to leave there. That's what she wanted President Obama to hear.
BITTMAN: Yes, this is what the question she wanted to ask him. When she told me this or we were talking about this and she wrote the letter, I told her well now you're a member of the White House Press Corps.
And she gave all but that and that was really good because she wants to make a difference. This was her little way of making a difference. It's kind of one of those wonderful things it's helping her heal because now she can make Daniel's life count for something and try to get this to the president and then hopefully to Congress and everyone else.
COOPER: You can tell her that the world has heard her letter tonight and hopefully, the White House has as well.
BITTMAN: I will.
COOPER: You were telling me earlier at the memorial service. I mean, conversations are already being had here something has to come out of this. That this cannot go --
BITTMAN: Over and over again. At this wake, I was standing with people, also in other conversations and everyone is saying we have to make this count for something. We have to make change.
And there's lots of different things happening to try to do that, but the most important thing that everyone's talking about are three issues, mental health, gun control and safety of school facilities. And everywhere you go, that's what people are talking about so --
COOPER: And you're hearing civil conversations?
BITTMAN: I am. Actually, earlier today I was invited to be part of an online panel and I was with a gun proponent and a woman out of the Virginia Tech, an English teacher in that situation and several others.
And we had a civil discourse online for about an hour. That's what we need to do, have that civil discourse, so that we can find the solutions. It's not just one thing. It's a multitude of things, but we'll never get there if we can't talk to each other.
COOPER: But the idea that the media will go away and things will quiet down and nothing will change, that would break the hearts of people here?
BITTMAN: Well, somebody called me Cinderella because they thought that my trying to get this message out and trying keep this in the forefront of our politicians would never happen, I say it can.
We can effect change if we stand together with people affected by mass shootings, and we hold the politicians accountable to make a change. Not just in one area, but let's find a way so these kinds of things don't happen again. We have to have that discussion.
COOPER: How are you holding up?
BITTMAN: Today took me off guard. The school was delayed. I have my seventh grader so I drove into the bus stop just because and all the moms were there. And I was just crying. And I didn't see that coming, telling my high schooler goodbye when he drove away.
Suddenly, everybody was texting me and all the moms were crying. I think it's not just the fear of sending them to school. I truly wasn't afraid of that, it's kind of like we're returning to normal and that doesn't feel right. I think we just sort of collapsed because of that.
COOPER: It's funny, tears come in odd times. It comes in waves. When it you least expect it, you find yourself crying.
BITTMAN: My husband actually is crying anytime anybody does something nice for him or says something nice. He just losses it and he's not one to cry like that. It's typical grief but it's more horrific because -- here's something else happening to me.
Every time I think I have my arms around the people I think I need to help, I remember another group that's been affected by it. They know a family because of -- everyone's struggling with that.
It's such a massive thing. We can't really figure out who's truly hurting that's associated with these families. Think about that, when you have a child that's playing soccer, that little baby in the stroller, you kind of know about that little sibling, but you focus on the child playing soccer. Those are the connections that we're figuring out.
COOPER: One of the things Lynn McDonnell said to me about Grace, it gives her comfort to know that Grace was with her friends and that they were holding hands in their mind. She likes to think of them in heaven right now holding hands together.
BITTMAN: Yes, I understand that. Thank you, Anderson, I appreciate it.
COOPER: Next, we got new information about the medical examiner on the gunman. We'll talk to Sanjay Gupta about that. We'll be right back.
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LT. J. PAUL VANCE, CONNECTICUT STATE POLICE: People responded once they heard about the scene, about the situation. They responded to come and retrieve their children. And when they couldn't find their children, fear set in. Panic set in. Pain set in. It was fear of the unknown and when the notification finally had been made, it was absolutely heartbreaking.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: Well, we said repeatedly, we're not going to focus on the gunman who destroyed all these families five days ago. We don't say his name hardly at all. We frankly don't want history to remember his name or him.
At the same time when the investigation up folds we do have to talk be the killer. Authorities are digging through every facet of his life, including his medical history.
Today, the medical examiner told our sister network, HLN, that the 20-year-old gunman was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, but didn't know if that diagnosis was actually correct.
The former director of security for Newtown public schools also told CNN the gunman had Asperger's Syndrome. There are some documents he'd seen in conversations with his mother years ago.
Until now, no one in any official capacity had commented directly on this possible piece of the case if that in fact has anything to do with the case at all. It's a very sensitive issue.
Many people are worried that violence will be incorrectly linked to Asperger's Syndrome. Chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, joins us now. So let's talk about this. First of all, can you explain what Asperger's Syndrome is and how it typically presents itself?
DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Asperger is something that is typically on something known as the autism spectrum. They use the term spectrum sort of on purpose to be a little bit vague because there are all sorts of different, you know, sort of symptoms of this.
But Asperger's sort of considered the highest functioning form of autism in some ways. They often times socially awkward. They have a hard time making eye contact, strong social connections.
But again, Anderson, you and I talked about this, there are people running major companies in this country who have come out and said they also have Asperger's. You can be very highly functional with this, but it's hard to categorize or pinpoint specific symptoms.
COOPER: I know several people with Asperger's, often times, they're particularly experts in one particular realm or particular interests, but just have sort of, as you said, socially awkward.
I know you've dug into this, is there any evidence at all that autism spectrum disorders, which are not mental disorders, are linked to violence, planned violence in particular? GUPTA: There's not. You know, I don't want to dance around the edges here at all or beat around the bush because this has come up quite a bit. I know that there wasn't since we started reporting on this, I talked to several experts about this specific issue.
There just isn't. There's a paper that's sort of the most often reported paper with regard to this issue. It's a study of 132 people who had high functioning autism, out of those 132 people, three episodes of violence.
None of those episodes were, as you say, pre-planned violence. It was typically reactive violence or outbursts. I think we can dispense with this myth, frankly, that there's a connection between Asperger and violence.
COOPER: And autism spectrum disorders, again, I want to repeat, these are not mental illnesses. And people who suffer from autism spectrum disorders, do we know if there are any more likely than anybody else to suffer from mental illness?
GUPTA: There has been some data on that second part of your question that there could be more likely of a concordant mental illness or you know, somebody you would develop a mental illness later on.
I want to clear about something, you know, these terms, again, as you always say, Anderson, matter, but when you say something is a neurodevelopmental disorder, what that is really saying the this is something that the person has had since birth.
It has an inherent quality to it. But as you know, several of these mental illnesses that develop later on in life, meaning, you know, late teens and 20s, that's one of the differences between neurodevelopmental disorder and mental illness. The Asperger is a neurodevelopmental disorder.
COOPER: We hear the talk about violent video games. Is there any evidence that connects these types of games to real life violent behavior? I know they're hugely popular?
GUPTA: Yes, and I think the evidence is pretty sketchy. Over the last couple of days I looked at the data carefully, I will tell you since 1972, before the video games were even out there. There were concerns about violent programming.
A surgeon general warning 40 years ago about could violent programming lead to aggressive behavior. There have been a couple of studies looking specifically at increase in heart rate and blood pressure on people playing.
There's one study that showed it increased lack of empathy overall -- studies -- also, that the game makes a person more aggressive. I just think it's hard to draw the comparison, Anderson.
COOPER: All right, Sanjay, we appreciate that. Thanks very much. We'll be right back. A lot more ahead. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It just doesn't seem like Christmas, you know. It's really, really hard.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: Burying little boys and girls days before Christmas, days after Hanukkah, no one should have to face that. You can feel the sadness in Newtown. You can also feel incredible strength.
I want to show you a picture of the one of the little girls. This is Allison Wyatt. A family friend of the Wyatt just came by and asked us to mention Allison tonight.
In a statement, Allison's parents said she was kind hearted, loved drawing, loved to laugh, sweet, creative, funny and intelligent. She was developing her own wonderful sense of humor that range from being just a silly 6-year-old coming up with observations that more than one had us crying with laughter.
Those are the words of Allison's parents, 6 years old. We will remember her. Earlier you heard Chris and Lynn McDonnell talk about their 7-year-old daughter Grace. The joy she brought them and her brother, Jack and everyone she touched.
Lynn told me their family will open presents on Christmas like they always do because that's what Grace would want. It's hard to hear the song "Amazing Grace." I told Lynn, it's one of my favorite songs. I said now every time I hear it, I'll think of their amazing Grace.
Lynn said she believes all the little children gone are holding hands in heaven, bright stars shining down over Newtown. She said none of the kids had hate in their hearts. She acknowledged that the journey ahead is difficult but she'll let the children guide them. We'll leave you with a look at Lynn and Chris' amazing Grace and all the others this town has lost.
COOPER: Amazing Grace. We'll see you again one hour from now, at 10:00, another edition of "360."