In the Suburbs: The irony of personal loss mixed with a school tragedy

Eight years have passed and the day is as vivid as it was when so much changed.

My mother died at 8:30 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012 in Chicago. I was subbing that day at Fairfield Warde High School, as was my older daughter Stacey, and we received a lot of support from colleagues, which made processing mom’s death less painful.

But how ironic was it to learn barely two hours later that 20 beautiful children and six educators had been murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, less than 30 minutes away? Adding this tragic event to a day already filled with personal sadness, I will never forget the void I have felt for the past eight years.

Suddenly, for the Warde High School staff and for educators across the state and country, we realized how vulnerable students and educators are. Our conversations for the remainder of the day were focused on whether Sandy Hook could or couldn’t have happened at Warde or any of our local schools. Yes, we remembered the massacre of innocent high schoolers at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1997, but this horror show was in our backyard, just down the road.

The Sandy Hook victims left for school on that quiet Friday morning before Christmas, never suspecting it would be their last. And families of those victims, who would have spent the weekend planning for the holidays with their children, spouses or companions, were changed forever. First responders wept, phones at local funeral homes began ringing off the hook and hospitals began accommodating injured students and staff.

Reports explained later that Adam Lanza had first killed his own mother, using firearms she had once purchased. I never quite understood whether there was any link between Lanza and Sandy Hook elementary school.

The Sandy Hook tragedy emphasized the need for even greater security in our schools, but it also proved to be an even bigger catalyst for major gun reform nationwide. Sadly, eight years later, the nation still hasn’t come together on how to make that reform happen. And there have been more shootings.

This past Monday, the anniversary of Sandy Hook, U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy joined Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz for a virtual vigil.

“In the hours, days, and months that followed one of the most tragic days in our history, we saw an unprecedented outpouring of kindness and hope from millions of people across the state and country that showed only light and love can drive out darkness and hate. We must continue to protect the core values of humankind - love and unity - and ensure these principles serve as our guidepost for every facet of our lives. Newtown, my heart is with you today and always,” Bysiewicz said after reading the names.

In a Dec. 12, 2017 television piece on NBC news about major changes in school buildings after Sandy Hook, reporter Elizabeth Chuck reported experts say the massacre “prompted the wave of alterations to school buildings.”

“After Sandy Hook, you saw a tremendous increase in the number of buzzer systems," Amy Klinger, director of programs and co-founder of the Educator's School Safety Network, a nonprofit that supports safer schools, said in the piece. “By requiring that visitors be buzzed in by a receptionist or other staff member, schools say they're adding a layer of control about who can gain access.

The segment said these changes also pose challenges, including buzzer systems alone costing about $5,000 and can make the school feel less inviting. Experts in the piece said these physical changes are only part of the solution and might even take away from other needed safety measures. They instead advise schools to combine them with other approaches, including regular lockdown drills, meetings led by a school crisis team throughout the year and keeping open lines of communication with local first responders, according to the broadcast.

Mo Canady, another expert interviewed by Chuck said, “We want to always be looking at that balance between helping kids feel safe at school, and be safe at school, but not feeling like they're going to school in a prison environment.”

Canady is the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, a nonprofit for school-based law enforcement officers.

The new Sandy Hook Elementary school opened in 2017 on the same property and includes a number of “inconspicuous security features.” Matthew Consigli, president of Consigli Construction, which built the new school for $50 million, described some of them in the broadcast, including “doors that can be easily locked from the outside or inside, bullet-resistant windows, and bioswales outside the building that absorb water for plants while also keeping visitors at a distance.”

“The new building was very thoughtful and very sensitive,” he said in the report. “We wanted to make sure that we introduced and implemented security features that aren't readily apparent to the children.”

Today, like so many of the tragedies that have occurred in the past eight-plus years and involved the deaths of innocent children and/or teachers, the Sandy Hook tragedy has become a memorial event that we must never forget and that is commemorated every year. And staging that memorial was particularly difficult this year because of the restrictions from COVID-19.

For me, Sandy Hook will remain the anniversary of my mother’s death and will be the day educators around the state received a wake-up call about how vulnerable we are in our schools. Today, no matter how secure a school may have become, we could still face danger from an outside or even inside perpetrator.

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