They would have turned 16 or 17 this year. High school juniors.
The children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012 should have spent this year thinking about college, taking the SAT, and getting their driver’s licenses. Perhaps attending their first dance.
Instead, the families of the 20 students and six educators killed in the mass shooting will mark a decade without them on Wednesday.
December is a difficult month for many in suburban Newtown, Connecticut, where the joy of the holiday season is tempered by heartbreak around the anniversary of the nation’s worst elementary school shooting.
For former Sandy Hook students who survived the massacre, the guilt and anxiety can be intense. For parents, it can mean renewed grief, even as they continue to fight on behalf of their lost children.
In February, the Sandy Hook families reached a $73 million settlement with gunmaker Remington, which made the shooter’s rifle. Juries in Connecticut and Texas ordered conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to pay $1.4 billion for promoting lies that the massacre was a hoax.
In mid-November, a memorial to the 26 victims was opened near the new elementary school built to replace the one it demolished after the shooting.
Ten years later, relatives of some victims and survivors are not without hope for a better future.
ACTIVISM IN THE CONSEQUENCES OF THE TRAGEDY
After the massacre, Nicole Hockley and Mark Barden were among the relatives of many victims who took up activism. They helped form Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit group that works to prevent suicides and mass shootings.
Hockley, who lost her 6-year-old son, Dylan, and Barden, who lost her 7-year-old son, Daniel, have a hard time believing their children have been missing for a decade.
“To me, Dylan is still this 6-year-old boy, forever frozen in time,” Hockley said. “This journey that we’ve been on for the last 10 years, it doesn’t feel like a decade and it doesn’t feel like 10 years since I last held my son.”
A decade has not diminished the disbelief that Barden and his wife feel over Daniel’s death.
“Jackie and I still have moments where we just look at each other, still wrapping our heads around the fact that our 7-year-old was shot and killed in his first grade class,” she said.
“I can’t help but wonder what she would be like now at 17,” she said, repeating the number 17. “I just think she would still be a more mature version of the beautiful, sweet, compassionate, thoughtful, intelligent little boy that he was 7 years old. And it breaks my heart to think about the wonderful impact he would have had in these last 10 years and what was still to come, and it’s all been taken away from him.”
Sandy Hook Promise programs have been delivered in more than 23,000 schools to more than 18 million children and adults. Key components include education about the warning signs of potential school violence or self-harm and an anonymous tipping system to report a classmate who is at risk of harming others or harming themselves.
Hockley and Barden say they believe the education programs and reporting system have prevented many suicides and stopped some school shootings.
“It’s enormously satisfying and it’s a serious responsibility,” Barden said of the group’s work. “And it’s a gift in a way that we’ve built something that allows us this mechanism by which we honor our children by saving other children and protecting other families from having to endure this pain.”
GROW A SURVIVOR
Ashley Hubner was in her second grade classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary when the shooting happened. She and her classmates ran to the cubby area to hide. The school intercom system has been clicked. Everyone could hear gunshots, screams and cries.
When the police arrived, she and her companions did not want to open the door. They thought the bad guys could impersonate officers. They shouted “No!” The officers had to convince them that they were actually police.
Ashley, now 17 at Newtown High School, developed post-traumatic stress disorder and has struggled with anxiety and depression, like other students who were there that day. Ashley said that she always gets more emotional and irritable around the anniversary of the shoot.
“Even though it’s been 10 years, this is an issue that many of us still have to deal with in our daily lives and it still affects us a lot,” he said.
Adding to the grief is the fact that mass shootings continue to happen, he said.
“We’ve had 10 years to change things and we’ve changed very little, and that disgusts me,” he said.
Ashley said that there hadn’t been much talk among her birthday mates yet.
“I feel like everyone is trying to pretend that everything is normal and then when that day comes, I’m sure people will come around and I will.”
Ashley wasn’t sure how she could mark the day. All city schools will be closed for staff development. He said he might make his first trip to the new memorial.
He said he’s been happy with his senior year at Newtown High, calling it one of the best school years he’s had. She wants to go to college.
“I’m really, really excited to go,” she said. “I like to have new experiences and grow and move on with this chapter of my life, you know?”
LIGHT CONQUERS DARKNESS
Santa Rosa de Lima Church has been a gathering place for the Newtown community since the day of the shooting, when hundreds filled the Roman Catholic church and stood outside for a vigil. Since then he has celebrated a special mass every December 14.
Monsignor Robert Weiss still struggles with his own trauma. The church conducted the funerals of eight murdered children. He hasn’t slept well since and gets excited easily. During Mass, he always watches the entrances, worried about a violent intruder.
“It’s a very difficult time for me to have buried eight of these children,” he said of the anniversary. “It just brings back so many memories of real sadness.”
The birthday masses are hopeful, Weiss said, with a theme of light conquering darkness.
“The darkness of evil will not conquer good and we as a community must work together to make sure that happens,” Weiss said. “We want to celebrate and remember the children and the families, and how this tragedy has turned into so many positive things to help other people.”
After Sandy Hook, there was frustration among many gun violence prevention advocates that nothing was being done to stop these massacres. The failure of a gun control bill in the months after Sandy Hook was another tough loss.
But U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, said the shooting re-energized the movement, with numerous groups forming to demand action.
“In the 10 years before Sandy Hook, the gun lobby controlled Washington. They got everything they wanted,” Murphy said.
“After Sandy Hook happened, we started to build what I would describe as the modern anti-gun violence movement,” he said. “For the next 10 years, there was essentially gridlock. The gun lobby no longer got what it wanted, but unfortunately. We weren’t getting what we wanted in Washington either.”
After mass shootings last spring killed 21 people at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and 10 people at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, Congress passed the bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the first federal law important arms control in decades. The law expands background checks for younger gun buyers, increases school mental health programs and promotes “red flag” laws to temporarily confiscate guns from people deemed dangerous.
“I think this summer marked the tipping point, where the gun safety movement finally has more power than the gun lobby,” Murphy said.
“It will be a tough December for these families, but I hope they know what a difference they have made in their children’s memory in these 10 years.”
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