Richard Novia: “Adam Had Episodes. He Would Completely Withdraw.”
February 19, 2013, 9:42 pm ET
Richard Novia served as chief of security in Newtown’s school district and ran the tech club at Newtown High School. He recruited Adam to join the tech club, hoping to encourage him to become more social. According to Novia, Adam’s mother, Nancy, was at a loss as to how to help her son. “She was failing at bringing him out of his little world,” Novia said. “And I said that I think I can help him.” This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 27, 2013.
Richard, you arrived in Newtown in 1993?
At the school systems? Yes. I lived in Newtown.
Can you talk about what you encountered about the climate, what the environment of the town high school is, and what you set about doing?
They had the typical problems most schools do: substance abuse, some gang stuff, leaving campuses — all kinds of little problems that made [the school system hire] persons like myself to put them in perspective, [and give] assessments and recommendations to prevent these things from happening.
And what are the cliques that you identified?
For example, you had your black dressers, or your cloaks. You had sports cliques. There are many, many types of cliques in the school system, I made an objective to identify them and understand them. …
Now you mentioned from your security and investigative background, you had an affinity for electronics … so you went on about starting a tech club, a computer club at the high school?
Right, I was basically a geek. … So I could see that several types of students, the geeky type, or the nerds, which I related to very well, were missing something on the campuses at the time, and it was a way for me to pull them in.
And these were also types of students that often become victims of bullying, harassing, hazing. So I developed a tech club, to bring these students in and interact with them. And it grew from two or three to as high at 40 kids.
Now the time that we get into the mid-2000s, did you have Ryan Lanza in your tech club?
Yes. Yes I did. …
And at what point did you expand the tech club?
We began to interact with the middle schools, the students in the 6th and 7th grades, and bring programs to them. So the tech club members and myself would take robotics down there. They would have to assemble them, put them together and then program them, make them follow little patterns on the floor with the robots. And this was a way to engage the middle school. They felt they were making friends earlier on. They were finding their ways to be who they were. [It was] a way to exercise their intelligence.
You met Adam Lanza there?
While he was in middle school?
I believe so, while the tech club was in expansion mode. We would invite them to the high school for the events. We would video tape a football game, a basketball game, a graduation, parades — all kinds of stuff at the high school level. And the middle school was now involved, so they would be bussed up to the high school after school for these events.
You remember if Adam came to those events early on?
Inside events, wen we had like activities like tech club night sleepovers. We’d spend a weekend or overnight in the school, lock it down. I’m in charge, as a director of security. You had 30 kids, some of them were middle schoolers whose parents allow them to come over and stay overnight. He did partake in those.
Did Ryan stay close?
Early on Ryan, unfortunately, he had to [be] somewhat of a caregiver for his brother, when all he wanted to do is be a typical 16 year old and have his fun, which meant video shoots and computer games and all kinds of stuff throughout the night. But yeah, they were together at one point.
How did your connection with Adam evolve from the moment you first met him on through the year and two years that he was in your orbit?
From when I first met him, I recognized him as a person who would be likely to be bullied or picked on. … I identified him both because he had mental disorders, challenges. … And my objective at that time was to watch him very closely and make sure that didn’t happen.
… How do you help him or deal with him?
I interacted with his parent early on to find out as much as I could –
Nancy yes, who I think is a wonderful woman. … As a staff member, and certainly a person who’s gonna be overseeing your child, I need to know what I’m dealing with. You might have an allergy to peanut butter. It’s that simple, I need to know this sort of stuff.
So my interaction with Nancy Lanza was really: “Tell me about Adam. Tell me how you deal with Adam.”
And what did she say about Adam?
Oh, she told me that he had several disorders.
Did she say he had Asperger’s?
Yes. I believe, yeah, she did. That’s where I first [got] the information. Because I was going to be responsible for him and wanted to do well by him and integrate him.
Did she also say that he had a sensory processing disorder?
Yes, she did. Yes.
And did that fall into one of the areas of concern, because maybe he wouldn’t report an injury, report pain, seek help as someone else would?
Exactly. So my first interaction with her was to understand what I had to be concerned about, what I needed to know about him. But also since she had been the mother over the years, how was it that she was dealing with him and what could I do?
And what did she say about that?
Specifically that kind of thing, she was failing at bringing him out of his little world. And I said that I think I can help him. I think can I integrate him better through the tech club.
What was her reaction to that?
She didn’t think it would work. She was very concerned to let him out, although she really, really, desperately needed him to be more social. So she went along with it and I think we saw some success.
Did she express as the months went by that in a sense, you were right?
Well, she was a good parent. This was a parent who was actively involved with her children, their educational processes, their groups, their friends. The older son didn’t need her care. He was way ahead of most.
The younger son needed extra care. Video productions, software — he would master this stuff very quickly. But still to get him to speak one or two words, it was very, very hard.
But over time I was able to get closer and closer to him, to a point where I felt that I could sit next to him and he wouldn’t pull away. He wouldn’t withdraw, and he was comfortable. You could see him maybe not so much as cringe.
Did Nancy acknowledge that and let you know that she recognized that?
Yes, she did. She saw it working. Not just her — administrators, teachers, all the students that were around him would report that slowly but surely, he was coming out. He was succeeding, and I was happy.
He’s not my only one, OK. There’s lots of kids like this, and they might belong to a different group. But the object is to socialize them.
How often to do you recall Nancy being on campus on a weekly basis?
In his freshman year, there were periods of time where I think I saw her two or three times a week. I think I saw her two or three times a week, and then you’d have a good month or two and I’d see her once.
Why would she typically be there two or three—
Adam had episodes. It was the best way I can describe them to you. He would completely withdraw. Again he would go backwards. He would pull back within himself entirely. And getting him to come back out of that required an attention, my attention. …
Would she be called to the school?
Yes. … I did recall calling her once on a overnight where I think I sent him home.
So what happened on that overnight?
We were doing well and at some point, again he would have his episode. This episode would be where he completely withdraws from the social activity that you’re involved with. Will not communicate. Adam, what’s going on? No answer.
You could see it slowly happening. Most of the tech club kids are aware of him and his situations, in a loving and caring way, and would say, “Hey Mr. Novia,” you know, “you need to go take a look at Adam.” He would separate himself from the group, not far, but at the same time, not want to be too far away where he didn’t feel safe.
Was there a time when he was in a darkened room, the only illumination was the glow of the screens, and he wouldn’t come out?
Yeah, I mean, that was an example I’ve given before to help understand his personality. He likes isolation. He likes to be alone. But at the same time, not. He likes to be near, but not too close.
So there was a time where we had a controlled room for the video productions of our channel 17. He would like to be in there. The only illumination of the room is the monitors, and intentionally it’s dark in that room. He’d like that type of environment. He’d like that quiet, close the door in the control room, stay in there. I would say, “No, no, no, you’re on to do this.” … And we had reached a point where he would actually respond to that. So that was progress. “You’re gonna be behind camera 4.” Now, he wouldn’t say no, he wouldn’t say yes. He wouldn’t say anything. But he got to a point where he was able to comply. And walk along and do things and do activities.
And then later on, he would actually follow the groups around. And an episode would be the complete reverse of that: Not willing to communicate, not willing to talk, and not willing to share or able to share was a better word.
Was there any trigger to that? Was there any proceeding event that you identified?
My opinion would be that he would become accustomed to certain things and when you try to raise that level or bar, he would pull back.
A change from the routine?
Yeah, excitement. I’ll give you an example. On a normal tech club afternoon, the kids don’t go home. They just stay on campus with me. I’m usually there 16 hours a day anyways, and we’ll be in the tech club room, where all the computers are.
You might [play] capture the flag. He’s not used to that, has no idea what it is. All the kids are gathering and they are starting to get excited. You’d lose him. So you had the change and he wasn’t able to go along with those changes as fluidly as the other students, who would say: “What is capture the flag? I want in, I want in.”
And the times you called … what was the typical interaction with Nancy Lanza?
She knew, because she had raised him. There really wasn’t that much of a discussion. It would be more like, “Nancy, you need to come up to the school.” This is old stuff now, so she’d just come up to the school. And I’d say, “He’s having an episode and I’d prefer that he’d go home.”
Other times, there had been many occasions where I thought not to send him home. … I’d go up and sit next to him. If he was sitting on the floor in the corner somewhere, I would do the same. And if it took a half an hour to sit there in silence with him, at some point, you’d go, “How we doing?” And you wouldn’t get an answer.
So I had read a book many years before that on how to interact with this type of behavior. I had studied the DSM-5 repeatedly on his behalf and on many other students’ behalf. I had a gadget with me at one time. I handed him the gadget, put it down. And he wouldn’t take it. But at some point, he started to play with it. And that actually, at some point, got him to start to come back and interact and be ready to go take part in the events. No answer, but physically getting up and going.
Was Adam on a track to violence?
No. Not at that time. Not at that time he was not.
His manifestation would be what? In the hallways for example? During class change, between bells?
That would scare him more than anything, in the beginning especially. I’m sure he got better, but he would avoid the crowds in the halls. Anybody could imagine or remember what this is. There’s hundreds of kids going in between lockers, opening up and closing, you know, mayhem in the hallways between bells. People rushing to the cafeteria, rushing to their classes.
That would make him nervous. And he would maybe shy against them, or wait. Maybe he’d be late for class. He would wait where there was no kids and then move along and then he would take the locker situation. But he had an escort at times. I mean there’s staffers. I was around. My people were around.
Were there times when he might not come to a class or wander out of a class?
It wasn’t until his later times that he I believe he had actual classes. Special ed — he was part of that group. They have their own rooms, so he was in there a lot and did not have to go room to room in the beginning. Later on, they’re trying to integrate him so he would be put in a classroom and see how that works.
At some point did you learn that Nancy Lanza had taken Adam out of high school?
At the same time I was leaving the Board of Education, she pulled him out too. He couldn’t come back for that school year.
Why do you think she pulled him out?
I don’t know. I’ve pondered this issue for a long time. I have often wondered that if she just felt one of his main support networks were no longer there. I don’t know. He may have gotten worse. I don’t know. He may have pulled back farther at that point. I don’t have an answer for that because like I said, I was gone. I had no interactions with Adam after that. Today, I wish I did.
… Did it ever come to your attention that Nancy was into shooting sports?
No. That shocked me. I was absolutely shocked to hear that Nancy would have had anything to do with guns. I was stunned.
You own firearms?
Yes I do.
And you’ve been an instructor on the range?
You believe that shooting with Ryan and Adam was a mistake?
Yes, I do.
Even if they bonded? She expressed to friends that it was a bonding experience.
No. … I have a child who loves to do the hot-rod driving on race cars, and he’s just 16 years old. He’s got himself a wonderful, wonderful simulator on the TV. He’s playing the video games. … So the result is I should have been able to foresee that my son loved the speed, when I bought him his first car. And it wasn’t a couple of weeks after that that he got ticketed for 100-and-something miles per hour on a street in Newtown and I went well, OK, that was my mistake, because you play these games.
So what Adam had shown at that point early on [was] some high interest in the violent aspect of those games.
You know that firsthand?
I remember that he would opt to sit on the computer playing games like that than to go play DDR, which is Dance Dance Revolution.
You would remember what game he may have played?
The best of my recollection, and some people have said there are other games too, but it was World of Warcraft at that time. But again, these are simulators, and the more a person like him is playing these games, even a normal human being like yourself and I who are healthy would be desensitized towards the violence. A person in his situation would become involved to a much higher level, where they might act out, just as my son did on the racing game.
When it was observed that Adam in high school was playing violent video games, did anyone try to dissuade him?
A lot of kids were playing violent video games. But they’re healthy. Healthy kids. Adam was not a healthy child.
SUPPORT PROVIDED BY
NEXT ON FRONTLINEThe Rise of ISISEncore PresentationMarch 17th
FRONTLINE Watch FRONTLINE About FRONTLINE Contact FRONTLINE
FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of WGBH Educational Foundation.
Web Site Copyright ©1995-2015 WGBH Educational Foundation
PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.