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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES
Remembering Connecticut Victims
Aired December 18, 2012 - 22:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone. It's 10:00 here on the East Coast.
And we are bringing you another broadcast tonight from Newtown, Connecticut, a town where many students returned to school today. Schools reopened, with the exception, of course, of Sandy Hook Elementary, the school that is now a crime scene.
The students of Sandy Hook will go back to school after the holidays in a different building eight miles away with 20 bright young faces missing from the halls and the classrooms. Everything is different now. The children in this town are facing a new reality, doing things they never should have to do at this young age, like writing goodbye letters to their friends.
Six-year-old Jack Pinto was buried yesterday. At the funeral, a note from his friend John reads: "Jack, you're 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-olds. Jessica Rekos and James Mattioli were laid to rest today. We will remember them tonight and honor them tonight. Our hearts and our thoughts are with their families and their friends and we wish peace and strength to all the people whose lives that Jessica and James touched in just six short years.
COOPER: James Mattioli was known as And. Six 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 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 and 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 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. At the end of each 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 minute 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 journals and making up stories. They spoke to ABC News.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I found a little journal. I don't even know what it's from. But I just opened the book and it was exactly what I needed. It says, "I love you so much, mama." It's like she knew we were going to need something to help us get through this. It'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's 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 our 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 have 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 have tried to be careful and respectful of what the families are going through, tried to not ever intrude on their suffering.
But after Sunday night's program, we got a call from the McDonnell family, 7-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 artist that lived life to the fullest, made the most of every day of her far-too-short life.
I was amazed at the strength that Grace's parents showed and they say it's Grace who is guiding them through these difficult days. Here's our conversation. Tonight, we honor Grace. We will remember her. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
COOPER: 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 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 -- 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 school.
We would blow kisses every morning to each other. I remember that morning, putting her on the bus, she had a habit of blowing kisses, but then she would give me a big liver lip like, ooh.
L. MCDONNELL: But then I knew she was so happy to go off and get there. I would like to say is 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.
The whole community and the school and the teachers, 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, 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 will be able to process this and how we 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, 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 it just felt like a dad surrounding us and feeling our pain. 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. One of the things we 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 will just take the lead from them, and we will not go down that road. But we will 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 thing 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 all -- 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, and 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 pane above it said, "Grace, 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 has a white casket?
L. MCDONNELL: She does. And when we walked in the room, it was the first time we had been able to be with her. And when we walked in the room, and we saw that white casket, it just -- you 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 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 had been together.
L. MCDONNELL: Ice cream cones, lighthouses, seagulls. And we were saying, she's laughing at us right now because our artwork was terrible.
L. MCDONNELL: 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 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 Swift Christmas song in there.
She has her dad's New York Yankee hat. So she had all the things that she loved with her. So we took -- we had peace when we left last night.
COOPER: It's got to be hard not to have been not actually to 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 will take comfort in looking. We have so many beautiful pictures of her. We will take comfort in remembering her beautiful smile. And I will remember her blowing the kisses that day, getting off 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 me to share here.
And I'm not going to share the whole note with you because some of it is private, but she wrote: "When Anderson visited our house, I showed him one of our picture books in Martha's vineyard. I have always said that I took my photographs 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 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 it. 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.
COOPER: You're looking at one of the many memorials to 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 were 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 be an extraordinarily difficult day for these students.
KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A difficult day, but a really necessary day. We spoke to parents and students who were returning.
And what we are really 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 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 school. As a sign of comfort, it was across Newtown and in the surrounding communities. There were police cars at every single school.
The high school I was at here at Newtown, three police cars. And the students say it 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, 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 much for being with us.
DR. DAVID SCHONFELD, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL CENTER FOR SCHOOL CRISIS AND BEREAVEMENT: Thank you.
COOPER: You met with teachers, administrators, and basically all employees of the school. What was your message to them?
SCHONFELD: Well, there were a couple messages I wanted to get across. The first thing is to recognize how heroic it is to be able to help students in a time like this, because we have to remember all of the staff are -- 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 and that they care about.
SCHONFELD: They're also impacted by going through a traumatic event.
The first thing is to recognize what they're doing and how courageous that is.
COOPER: One of the things I heard you say, too, is that it's OK for them -- it's OK for them to show emotion when talking with the students.
A lot of times, we don't want to upset children and so we don't want to show them that we're upset. But really, the kids are already upset. They already know about this. We want to do is help them be able to cope with the feelings. But if we never so them distress, we can't model for them how to cope with it.
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 heal.
COOPER: What else did you want them to know?
SCHONFELD: I also wanted them to know 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. I told them that as far as I was concerned there was 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: I guess for a number of students, this is obviously the first time that they have had to face death, that they have had to deal with this at all.
SCHONFELD: It is for many of the children. Unfortunately, we know that nine out of 10 children are going to experience a significant loss, the 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 extensive conversation, there are other people to refer them to.
SCHONFELD: I think it's important that we underscore what we're asking the teaching staff to do and the rest of the staff in 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 have obviously dealt with this sort of thing before. How do you think this community is doing?
SCHONFELD: Well, I arrived here Saturday night. 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. I was greeted immediately by the commissioner of education, Stefan 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 to 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: I know it's been a long day for you.
But 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. We will talk to Noah's uncle.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The look and fear and uncertainty in everybody's eyes that day is probably what I will never forget.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And that goes for first-responders, law enforcement, everybody.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The sounds of the sirens just kept coming and coming and coming. And it seems like it never ended that day.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: Those 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, 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 D.M. us your best contact phone number. And we will have someone reach out to you."
With JetBlue's help, Ethan's finale note 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 his life, life in general. The inside says I love you, Noah."
Joining me now is Alexis Haller, Noah Pozner's uncle.
Alexis, I appreciate you joining us.
ALEXIS HALLER, UNCLE OF NOAH POZNER: Thank you.
COOPER: Just a little bit, what do you want people to know about Noah?
HALLER: Well, Noah was 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. He had a twin sister.
COOPER: They were very, very close.
HALLER: Extremely close. When they were babies, they would babble at each from their cribs.
HALLER: And got into 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. He would just pretend that he worked at a taco factory. And they would ask him questions about it and he wouldn't really respond. He would just kind of give them a look as if he knew more than they did.
COOPER: That's great. I love that story.
HALLER: Yes. But Noah was also just a normal little kid, a real little kid. He loved "Mario Brothers" and animals and LEGOs and superheroes. and all the stuff that a normal 6-year-old loves.
You know, that's Noah.
COOPER: I know you wanted to talk about -- there's some scams out there that 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 have since challenged that. And it's been taken offline by GoDaddy. But we also were made aware of an e-mail scam where somebody was...
COOPER: Oops, sorry, sorry.
HALLER: ... purporting -- somebody was purporting to solicit money on behalf of the family.
COOPER: That's unbelievable.
HALLER: Yes. And it was going to an address in the Bronx. There are misspellings in the e-mail, so you have to look at pretty carefully to discern. But there's also a lot of information.
And it sounds like it is potentially in from a family friend.
COOPER: But it's not?
HALLER: And it's not. I guess we want to get it out there for the public, so that 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 have set up a Web site, and there's also an address. The Web site is NoahsArkofHopeFund.com.
COOPER: And we are putting that up on the screen.
HALLER: And there's also a few other friends. We have Friends of Maddie, for example, that was set up. And 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 so that...
COOPER: To watch out for that? HALLER: To watch out for that. Maybe they can get their friends to look at domain names. Look at -- look out for scams and then, you know, tell that to people and get the word out.
COOPER: I saw a Twitter page set up in the name of another child that I thought was real at first. And I contacted the family, and they said they don't know anything about it. So there are these horrible people out there. The idea that anybody out there could do this is just disgusting, but I'm glad you cleared it up. And again, we're putting the correct Web site's name up on our screen.
What -- I mean, it's a dumb question, but how are you -- how are you holding up? How is the family holding up?
HALLER: The family is devastated. It was, you know, the worst four days of our lives. It's kind of like you're in a waking nightmare. Never experienced anything even 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 -- they were suffering so much more.
COOPER: Of course.
HALLER: Everybody was suffering so much. And 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's two things. First when I see Noah's siblings, Ariela (ph) and Sophia (ph), they both survived. So they...
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. And as I understand it, the killer opened the door and thought there were no kids there and didn't find them.
And so whenever I see them, the family, I just see them, and that brings me joy that they made it.
And 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 -- and, finally, the other thing that kind of got us through was certain people that played kind of guardian angels. And we had a state trooper assigned to us, Sean Hickey, who is kind of a rock for us. And made a huge difference. We had a grief counselor, Dr. Laura Asher. Another rock. And for families to get through stuff like this, you need those rocks, and you need wind at -- wind at your back, to kind of push you forward. And we got that. We got that from friends and community.
COOPER: I know there's a lot of difficult weeks and months even years ahead. But I appreciate you talking tonight. And I wish you the best.
HALLER: Thank you. Appreciate it.
COOPER: Thanks very much, Alexis.
Again, the Web site is NoahsArkofHopeFund.Eventbrite.com. And we'll put that up on our Web site, AndersonCooper.com. Or AC360.com.
Five days ago -- the violence that shattered this community, five days ago is raising some familiar questions about those killings. Investigators are digging through the gunman's medical history for possible clues. We're going to talk to chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta about -- about that ahead. We'll be right back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I feel worried, nervous, but at the same time, I'm feeling happy to be back at school, because the -- the whole thing just, everyone will be together will probably be a good thing for the victims as well -- the siblings, the families of the victims.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: One of Newtown's students talking about his mixed feelings about returning to class today.
As we mentioned Sandy Hook Elementary remains closed, of course, but other schools in Newtown are reopening their doors.
The tragedy here sparking, obviously, nationwide dialogue on issues like gun control, mental health, school security. Today, the National Rifle Association announced a news conversation set for Friday and released this statement, saying in part, "The National Rifle Association of 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 of what they say on Friday.
Making sure it never happens again is also obviously a top priority for many here in this community. Lillian Bittman joins me now. She's the former chairwoman of the Newtown Board of Education and a former Sandy Hook parent.
You were at a wake earlier for Daniel.
LILLIAN BITTMAN, FORMER CHAIRWOMAN, NEWTOWN BOARD OF EDUCATION: Daniel Barden.
COOPER: Daniel Barden. You were a friend of the family. What...
BITTMAN: 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 just -- I'm sorry.
COOPER: That's OK.
BITTMAN: Their daughter, who I had on newspaper -- my -- 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 question when they met before the vigil.
BITTMAN: And she was -- one of my best reporters. And this really -- she was one of these usually gung-ho little kids, but you know, she obviously was intimidated. And -- and anyway, 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, and unfortunately, there were too many people at the wake for me to get up to actually see the family. So the letter was passed back to me. But this is what she wrote. If you could read it because I can't.
COOPER: OK. The family gave permission?
BITTMAN: The family wants -- they told me to bring it to you.
COOPER: OK. It says, "My name is Natalie Barden, and I wanted to tell the president that only police officers and the military should get guns. If people want to do it as a sport then they could go to a shooting range, and the guns would not be able to leave there."
That's what she wanted President Obama to here?
BITTMAN: Yes, that is what the question she wanted to ask him. And when she told me this, we were talking about this, and she wrote the letter, I had told her, I said, "Well, now you're a member of the White House press corps." And she giggled at that. And that was really good, because she wants to make a difference. And this was her little way of making a difference.
And in a -- 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 hopefully to Congress and everyone else.
COOPER: You can tell her that the world has heard her letter tonight.
BITTMAN: I will.
COOPER: 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 about -- that something has to come out of this. This cannot go...
BITTMAN: Yes, yes. Over and over again at this wake, I was standing with people, and 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. And 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 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, us 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, you know, the media will go away...
COOPER: ... and things will just kind of 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 to keep this in the forefront before our politicians would never happen. I say it can.
I say we can effect change if we stand together and we work with all the countries across this country that have been affected by mass shootings, and we hold our politicians accountable to make change. Not just in one area, but let's find a way so that these kinds of things don't happen again. We have to have that discussion.
COOPER: How are you holding up?
BITTMAN: Oh, today was -- today took me off guard. Our schools were two hours delayed. And I have my seventh grader, so I drove him to the bus stop, just because, and all the moms were there. And I was just crying. And I didn't see that coming, and telling my high- schooler goodbye when he drove away. And then suddenly, everybody was texting me, and all the moms were crying.
And I think it was not just the fear of sending them to school. I truly wasn't afraid of that. It was just that it was kind of returning to normal, and that doesn't feel right. And then -- I think we just sort of collapsed because of that. So... COOPER: We find that tears come at odd times, too.
BITTMAN: Very odd times.
COOPER: It's like it comes in waves.
COOPER: And when you least expect it, suddenly, you find yourself crying.
BITTMAN: My husband actually is crying anytime someone does something nice for him or says something nice. He just loses it. And he's not someone to cry like that. So yes.
I mean, it's typical grief, I mean, but it's more horrific because we -- you know, there's something else happening to me. Is every time I think I have my arms around the people I think I need to help, I remember another group who's been affected by it. You know, 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.
You know, 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 -- that we're figuring out.
COOPER: One of the things that Lynn McDonnell said to me about Grace, is that it gives her comfort to know that Grace was with her friends and that they were -- that they were holding hands in her mind. And she likes to think of them all in heaven right now holding hands together.
BITTMAN: Yes, I understand that.
COOPER: Thank you very much.
BITTMAN: Thank you, Anderson, I appreciate it.
COOPER: Next, we've got new information from the medical examiner on the gunman. We'll talk about it with Sanjay Gupta about that. We'll be right back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LT. 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 to be 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.
But at the same time as the investigation unfolds, we do have to talk about 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 they'd been told the 20-year-old 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, based on documents he'd seen and 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 it, in fact, has anything to do with the case at all. It's a very sensitive issue. Many people worry that violence will somehow be incorrectly linked to Asperger's Syndrome.
Chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta joins -- joins me now.
So let's talk about it. First of all, can you explain what Asperger's Syndrome is and how it typically presents itself?
DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Asperger is something that is typically on something known as the autism spectrum, and they use this term "spectrum" sort of on purpose to be a little bit vague, because there's all sorts of different, you know, sort of symptoms with this.
But Asperger's sort of considered the highest functioning form of autism, in some ways. People, you know, it's -- they're oftentimes socially awkward. They have a hard time making eye contact, strong social connections.
But again, you know, Anderson, you and I talked about this, there are people who are running major companies in this country who have come out and said they also have Asperger's. So you can be very highly functional with this. And it's hard to characterize or pinpoint specific symptoms.
COOPER: I know several people with Asperger's. Oftentimes, they're particularly experts in one particular realm or have particular interests. But just have sort of -- as you said, they're 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. And 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. And I knew that there wasn't -- since we started reporting on this, I talked to several experts in this about this specific issue. There just isn't.
There's a paper that's sort of the most often quoted paper with regard to this issue, Anderson. It's a study of 132 people who had -- were high-functioning -- had high-functioning autism. Out of those 132 people, three episodes of violence. None of those episodes were, as you say, preplanned violence. It was typically reactive violence or outbursts. You know, so just a very different thing.
So I think we can just dispense with this myth, frankly, that there's a connection between Asperger and planned violence.
COOPER: And autism spectrum disorders, again, I want to repeat this, are not mental illnesses. And people who suffer from autism spectrum disorders, do we know if they are any more likely than anybody else to suffer from a mental illness?
GUPTA: There has been some data on that second party oppression (ph), that there could be more likely of a concordance mental illness. Or you know, somebody who would develop mental illness later on.
But I want to be clear about something. These terms, again, as you always say, Anderson, matter, but when you say something is a neurodevelopmental disorder, what that really is saying is this is something that the person has probably had since birth. Something that has an inherent quality to it.
Whereas you know -- we've been talking about this -- several of these mental illnesses that develop later on in life, meaning, you know, late teens, early 20s, that's one of the differences between neurodevelopment disorder and what they call mental disorder, mental illness. The Asperger's is a neurodevelopmental disorder.
COOPER: Also, we're starting politicians talk about the violent video games. Is there any evidence, I mean, when you look through the resources that connect these types of games to real-life style of behavior? Because I know they're hugely popular?
GUPTA: Yes, and I think, you know, the evidence is pretty sketchy. So over the last couple of days I looked at the data pretty carefully. I will tell you since 1972, before these videogames were even out there, there was concerns about violent programming. The surgeon general, actually, was warning 40 years ago about could violent programming lead to aggressive behavior?
There's been a couple of studies looking specifically at increase in heart rate and blood pressure in people who are playing. There were some -- one study that showed an increased lack of empathy overall. Case studies (AUDIO GAP) also, that the game makes a person more aggressive. Or are aggressive people more likely to play the game? I just think it's hard to draw this connection, Anderson.
COOPER: All right, Sanjay, appreciate that. Thanks very much. We'll be right back. A lot more ahead. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
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 we just got of one of the little girls who was killed. This is Allison Wyatt. A family friend of the Wyatts just came by, asked us to mention Allison tonight.
In a statement, Allison's parents said she was kind-hearted, loved drawing, loved to laugh. Was sweet, creative, funny and intelligent. They said, "She was developing her own wonderful sense of humor that went from being a silly 6-year-old to coming up with observations that more than once had us crying with laughter." Those are the words of their -- of Allison's parents, 6 years old. We will remember her.
Earlier you heard Lynn and Chris McDonnell talk so movingly 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 her -- I told Lynn that it's one of my favorite songs and that from now on, every time I hear it, I'll think of their amazing Grace.
Lynn said she believes that all the little children, as I mentioned, who are gone are holding hands together in heaven, bright stars shining down over Newtown.
She said none of the kids had hate in their hearts. And she acknowledged that the journey ahead is difficult, but she'll let the children guide them.
We're going to leave you once again tonight with a look at Lynn and Chris's and Jack's amazing Grace and all the others this town has lost.
(MUSIC: "Amazing Grace")
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: "Amazing Grace." That does it for us here in Newtown. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts now.