One Year Later: Lessons from Sandy Hook
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“If one butterfly can cause a hurricane, then 26 butterflies can change the world.”
—Nicole Hockley, mother of Dylan Hockley, at his memorial service December 21, 2012
“Never forget” is humanity’s post-tragedy catchphrase, endlessly repeated at the same time as the planning of charity bake sales, the making of ribbons in memorial colors, the vigils, the speeches . . . .
“Never forget” comes in the same prepared remarks as the other oft-uttered phrase of “their lives were not lost in vain.” It appears in speeches that bear the words “innocent” “unjust” “inexcusable”—sandwiched between promises of eternal remembrance.
“We will move on, we will never forget, we will in many ways be made stronger for what has transpired and we will get better,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said on Dec. 15, 2012, at an interfaith vigil in Newtown.
In the course of those months that separate anniversaries of tragedies, have we found adequate ways to pay tribute to those who were lost beyond uttering well-meaning phrases that don’t change outcomes? What have we learned in memory of the teachers who no longer teach, the students who no longer do their homework and play on the playground—the ones who can no longer scrape their knees, wiggle loose teeth, flap like butterflies or act as angels in the school play?
The decisive—yet strained—answer from those who have sought to make Newtown stronger is that “it’s a work in progress.” Twelve months after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School many issues have been raised but we’re still processing it all. The exact same thing could happen again.
“I’m hoping the whole world learns a lesson. If these 26 people died in vain, then shame on us,” says Monsignor Robert Weiss, or Father Bob as he’s known to the Newtown community. Of the 20 students and six educators killed by a gunman on Dec. 14, eight of the funerals were held at Weiss’ St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic church. “If 20 innocent children had their lives taken at 6- and 7-years-old and we don’t change—not just in legislation, if we just don’t change as people—then shame on us.”
Weiss is among those who now see national momentum in trying to prevent other mass-shooting events—but actual, tangible change has been elusive. School security, gun control and mental-health resources have all been at the forefront of discussions about what needs to be done.
Weiss says he believes the country is “failing” when it comes to helping people with mental-health issues. He sees rising levels of stress in children, some as a result of what occurred in Sandy Hook Elementary School. While aid flooded in after the immediate horror on Dec. 14, he’s concerned about lingering effects and the mental health of the town as it continues to recover.
For now, he’s satisfied that the public discussion for improving mental-health services hasn’t ended as abruptly as the media trucks abandoned their encampments outside his church to record each funeral.
Janet Robinson, the superintendent of Newtown schools at the time of the shootings, welcomes increased attention to the issue. As an educator, she’s long been concerned about what happens to students with mental-health needs who graduate and no longer have the services of a school district.
“Look at each of the shootings that have occurred since Sandy Hook,” she says. “There have been a number of young people with problems who have shot at schools, at malls and other places—and what are we doing to try to help those people before it gets to that point?” Robinson says she has yet to see any specific policies that will bring about meaningful change.