One Year Later: Lessons from Sandy Hook
“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.
Finding an answer to what caused one person to take the lives of 27 others before his own may not be possible, says Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra. “I don’t know if they’ll ever truly truly truly figure out why this happened—sometimes the question is beyond comprehension,” she says. “But if you look at the underlying issues that have been raised by people . . . I continue to look at the mental health question.” She adds, “As a society, we’re just not there yet” in providing adequate resources.
Llodra says that while school-security measures have been enacted and that there are town residents working to focus on gun-control legislation, she believes what isn’t being addressed fully is why someone wanted to cause harm in the first place.
“Part of the sadness is if something like this could happen in Newtown, at a school where everything was done right—this was a school that had best practices for all safety protocols, a well-trained staff, a loving staff, a great administration . . . this was a school that students and families have loved for generations—if this horrible thing can happen in a school like that in Newtown, it could happen anywhere,” she says. “It puts everybody on notice to say, ‘Pay attention to your community and do whatever you can within your sphere to make sure it doesn’t happen where you are.’”
But are communities actually heeding that advice? Llodra says yes, “but not sufficiently. I think we’re starting to move the ball in that direction.”
Malloy continues to speak of changing policies and increasing mental-health resources. Though he signed some of the strongest gun-control legislation in the nation and has tried to provide additional mental-health and security resources, he acknowledges the job isn’t done.
“The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School was devastating to our state and our entire nation,” he said in a statement to Connecticut Magazine. “I believed then as I do now that the best way to move forward is to do so in a way that honors those we lost. We have taken some common-sense steps on school security, gun violence prevention and mental health that I am proud of. But the truth is that one year is not enough time to get everything right, let alone mourn all that we lost that terrible day.
“We owe it to everyone that was affected that day to make sure we leave the world a better place than we found it. That is work that you must dedicate your life to, and it’s a goal I think we need to work toward.”
In the wake of the shooting, organizations have sprung up lobbying for gun-control legislation. In April, the Connecticut General Assembly passed a bipartisan bill that enacted some of the most sweeping gun-control laws in the nation. National efforts have been spearheaded by parents from Newtown as well.
“We’ve learned that it keeps happening and its going to keep happening until we do something about it to reduce the risk—and that’s the objective, to reduce to the risk,” says Monte Frank, a Newtown parent and board member of the Newtown Action Alliance who is working to make change happen not just for Newtown but for every community that suffers from gun violence. “Newtown proves that it can happen anywhere, while [a city like] Hartford shows us that unless we do something it will continue every day.”
Llodra, Weiss and Robinson all note that the community rose up and came together to support the families affected by Newtown. Each stresses that in spite of very different points of view about gun control and other policies, the town hasn’t fractured or wavered from the goal of staying united as a community. That’s one thing that Scott Wilson, president of the pro-gun Connecticut Citizen’s Defense League, says he’s taken away from the tragedy.
“I’ve learned something has gotten overlooked—we’re all on the same side in wanting to protect our children,” he says, suggesting that message has been lost in the debate. He also says he’s learned that those who believe in the Second Amendment need to continue to work tirelessly to protect it.
The anniversary of the Newtown shootings is also the marker of when hordes of national and international media descended on a small suburban town, clogging the streets, crowding local shops and setting up camp outside every funeral. There’s a need to get information out so something can be gained from these awful events, says Hartford Courant reporter Alaine Griffin, but she understands that their presence can be intrusive. She and Josh Kovner were tasked with investigating shooter Adam Lanza, which culminated in a series that ran on PBS.
Reporters seek to answer the “why” and the “how,” she says. “It’s important for us to understand what drove Adam Lanza to do such a horrific thing.” She quotes philosopher George Santayana: “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Since then, laws have been passed to restrict crime scene photos and recordings from that day and other horrific crimes.
Without all the information, it’s hard to learn from what happened, says Rich Hanley, associate professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University. He believes that even though legislators fear that crime scene photos and recordings will be posted on the Internet or used in inappropriate ways if released, it doesn’t change the fact that the public ought to have access to such evidence. “Conclusions can be drawn from obviously having partial information, but better conclusions can be drawn from full information,” he says.
Twelve months after a tragedy that no one will ever forget, lessons have certainly been learned, but trying to apply it in practical terms continues to be a challenge for all involved, especially those closest to it.
Though residents may have felt as though Newtown would buckle under the gravity of what occurred on Dec. 14, Llodra says the town is “so much more.” “We’re a good and kind place, and I think the event tapped into that,” she says. “There’s strength to our commitment that we’ll continue to strive and grow into the future, and we will integrate this awful thing into who we are in the best possible way.”