When 17-year old Sara Capella was a Freshman at Joel Barlow High School, she overheard another student making unnerving remarks and, as would be expected, she reported the student to school administrators.
Her mother was shocked, then, when lawsuit paperwork started showing up in her mailbox months later.
“A couple of months went by, and all of a sudden we’re getting sued for defamation of character by the other student’s family,” her mother, Mia Capella, said during an interview last week.
“To make a long story short, we’re still getting sued along with two other families in Redding,” Mia said.
After the lawsuit was filed, the Capella’s were shocked to learn there was no protection for those who report possible threats in the state of Connecticut.
“Sara was upset,” Mia said. “She felt like she did something wrong.”
“I didn’t know it was possible,” Sara added. “You speak up, and then you get sued, and we wonder why no one wants to speak up? After something [tragic] happens, then people start coming forward saying they heard something, questioning people’s motives.
“It should be common sense, but for some reason, it’s not.”
So, rather than stand idly by, Mia realized she had to work for a change. She wasn’t just working for herself, but to prove to her daughter she had done the “right thing.”
“When I started to get paperwork in the mail, I was confused,” Mia said. “I’ve never been sued before. And, the more I stewed on it, it just wasn’t right. Maybe I’m not the kind of person who would have gone forward with this on my own, but because it affected her and it affected the other kids, I knew I had to do something.
“I knew this was not right. She did the right thing. She shouldn’t feel guilty. I had to show her she did the right thing. That she shouldn’t be ashamed of this,” Mia added later.
So, she took the problem to the office of State Rep. Dan Carter, who “just jumped up” to help, she said.
“Looking at what is happening these days, and with the ‘See Something, Say Something’ campaign ongoing, this just didn’t make sense to me,” Carter said by phone on Monday.
“In today’s day and age, where we have people making threats and getting attention for it, the worst thing we could do is shut people down from reporting it.”
He gave Capella some advice and encouragement, and both began the process of getting a law passed to protect those who report possible threats. State Reps. John Shaban, and Ben McGorty and State Sen. Tony Hwang all lent their support and encouragement, Capella said.
It took more than a year, due to the schedule of the state legislature, but months of waiting led to a single presentation where Mia was able to convince a number of legislators on the Judiciary Committee to support the idea.
And thanks to her work, as of October 1, a new law will protect those in Connecticut who report possible threats.
“Any individual who reports an act of threatening… shall have an absolute defense to any civil action brought as a result of having made such a report…” the law reads in part.
“I want people to know that they don’t have to be afraid to come forward,” Mia said. “These kids hear a lot of stuff in schools. And, all of these kids did the right thing. Whether it’s true or not, you have to tell somebody.”
Carter said this is an example of regional politics being positively altered thanks to small-town political activism.
“Sometimes common sense can prevail on the local level,” he said, noting an idea of “small conception” led to a great change.
“In a way, this was one of the biggest things that I’ve helped to get through [the state legislature] in the six years I’ve been here,” he added. “I think it is really just common sense, and I think it might actually save someone’s life. That’s a big deal, and it was something that was very small in its conception. It was just one woman and her daughter.”
Of all the ways the situation could end, Sara Capella said, creating a law that could make a difference is a positive one.
“It’s incredible what happened, but for a law to come out of it, there was some good to come out of it. It was a good lesson: That there’s no excuse for people not to speak up.”
“I wasn’t 100% sure about going through with this,” Mia added, “but it worked. You can actually make a difference.”