In the Suburbs: Reflecting on the Sandy Hook tragedy nine years later

I was subbing for a science teacher at Fairfield Warde on Friday morning, Dec. 14, 2012, when we suddenly heard the news via a student’s phone that there had been a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Of course, like any tragedy, the news details were coming in pieces and all we knew was that there had been some fatalities.

My older daughter Stacey, a special ed teacher/substitute, was also at school that day, but with busy schedules and classes moving, we hadn’t even seen each other. Fortunately, I had a break right after first science class, so I went immediately to the office. At the time, Virginia, the secretary in Townsend House and a good friend, had very little information also.

About 8:30 a.m., I called my brother on my cell to see how my 90-year-old mom was doing. She had been in hospice with lung cancer for just about two weeks and the nurses had said that the end was coming. But she had been able to listen the night before and I could tell her all the good things that were happening.

When my brother picked up, he quietly told me that mom was gone and the funeral would be in Chicago the following Tuesday. Sadly, Dad hadn’t made it to the hospice in time to say goodbye.

I temporarily forgot about the shooting in Newtown as I wiped away tears and asked Virginia where I might find Stacey that morning to tell her. She was just checking schedules when the details of the Sandy Hook tragedy took center stage. The victims, we learned, weren’t only adults. There had been children, little ones barely 6 or 7, and the principal and teachers. Suddenly my grief was multiplied by the horrors of this nightmare and I had a rough time focusing on my subbing responsibilities as the day dragged on.

When I finally located Stacey just after lunch, we hugged about my mom but tried to make some sense out of the Sandy Hook shooting also. But there was no sense.

Our drive to Chicago for Mom’s funeral was filled with news updates, witness commentary and then President Obama’s gut wrenching address at a local house of worship that Sunday. And I lost count of how many people asked me at the funeral how close Newtown was to Fairfield.

While schools acted almost immediately to tighten security with bells, buzzers and stronger entry systems, the effort to create a safe environment for children of all ages is still a work in progress.

I learned administrative staff at the new Sandy Hook Elementary School, who continue to receive threats from anonymous callers, decided to keep students home on the ninth anniversary.

And across the state, more schools, especially high schools, are being targeted by callers. An editorial by the Hearst Connecticut Media Editorial Board pointed out that the nine years since the tragedy showed “what happened in Newtown was in many ways all too common” as shootings continue with little time between mass casualty events involving firearms. This includes schools, most recently in Michigan.

“Threats of similar attacks have been reported at multiple area schools in the past week, though all, thankfully, appeared to be unsubstantiated. Still, the idea of a gunman at large in a school, which is supposed to be a place of learning, and community, and safety, is no longer unthinkable. For young people, this is all simply a part of how they’ve grown up,” the editorial said.

Of course, the ongoing controversy, despite continued shootings over the past nine years and beyond, is the divisive issue of gun control.

As the editorial explained, “There have been changes, certainly. Connecticut led the way in tightening up gun laws, with New York and other states following suit. But despite some high-profile efforts, the federal government has been unable to do anything. Sen. Chris Murphy, who has become a champion of gun safety in the past nine years, recently acknowledged that the Michigan shooting will not change the calculus in the Senate, meaning universal background checks will remain out of reach.”

The area of mental health, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and its forced isolation, has become more critical than ever in the effort to avert tragedies like those in Sandy Hook, Michigan and Florida among so many others. Mental health professionals are more diligent than ever about trying to listen closely to all students for concerns and insights about peers who could be potential dangers to themselves and others. Granted, these professionals can’t flag everyone, but I salute how thorough they are about addressing the continuing problems.

I’ll never forget what happened on Dec. 14, 2012, because it was a wake-up call that as educators we are not immune. What happened in Newtown could have happened in Fairfield or anywhere. My daughter Stacey and I just looked at each other that day and said, “My gosh, that could have been us.”

As the editorial concluded, “We need a future where what happened nine years ago remains shocking. We cannot live in a world where attacks on the most vulnerable among us are simply part of life.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at stevengaynes44@gmail.com.