Sandy Hook students return to class as town seeks normalcy
January 4, 2013 5:00 AM
Timothy A. Clary/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
A Sandy Hook Elementary student flashes peace signs as children leave on a school bus Thursday in Newtown, Conn.
By Peter Applebome The New York Times
MONROE, Conn. -- On the first day back, Sean Murray said, his 9-year-old son Brendan was eager to return to school and see his friends, but he was nervous at the same time.
"Brendan had two kids in his class whose siblings were killed," Mr. Murray said. "He's been getting counseling outside of school, and he might be getting more therapy in school. He's a trouper, and he's marching along, but you know there are underlying effects."
For Brendan, for his mother, Anne, an occupational therapist at Sandy Hook Elementary who lost three of her closest friends, and for everyone else, the road back began Thursday at what had once been a middle school. It was seven miles away from the school where 20 children and six faculty members were killed by a gunman Dec. 14.
Sean Murray said the district had done a "remarkable job" of re-creating the old school in a new setting and creating a nurturing environment that included therapy dogs there to greet returning children. Still, he said, it will be tough.
"I was kind of happy, but I sort of felt like I was going to throw up," he said, after dropping off his son and his wife, who is on medical leave but wanted to be with the children and her colleagues on the first day back. "We're all trying to move on, but there's a nervous sickness. I'm not sure that'll ever go away."
The goal had been to replicate the students' surroundings and experiences before Dec. 14, and that was how the day unfolded. Officials said attendance was good, and that most students took the bus to school.
"A lot of them were happy to see their friends they hadn't seen in a while," Monroe police Lt. Keith White said at a news conference Thursday afternoon. "They were excited about the new school."
The children arrived after a bus trip, largely through rolling exurban terrain full of handmade welcome signs. Everything inside had been painstakingly arranged to resemble the school and the classrooms they had left behind. The children's desks were the same. The pictures and drawings completed weeks ago were hanging on the walls. The students' backpacks -- left behind as they fled -- were once again tucked into classroom closets.
Beyond the aesthetics, changing a middle school into an elementary school meant changes large and small, such as raising bathroom floors to accommodate smaller children and lowering paper towel dispensers.
"At one point, there were 80 people in the building, cleaning up the building," Janet Robinson, superintendent of schools in Newtown, said Wednesday. More staff members have been assigned to the school, she said, including security and mental health professionals.
Sarah Caron made her son, William, 7, his favorite breakfast -- blueberry white-chocolate pancakes -- as much, perhaps, for her peace of mind as for his, before he boarded the bus Thursday. "It's going to be a new normal," she said. She also has a 5-year-old in kindergarten, who attends the afternoon session. "It can't be the same, but hopefully everything will get a little bit easier every day."
Parents, who were allowed to walk through the school Wednesday and spend the day there Thursday, expressed satisfaction with the building, staff members and the preparations made to allow the children to come back to nurturing surroundings.
There was particular praise for Donna Page, Sandy Hook's former principal, who came out of retirement to replace Dawn Hochsprung, the principal who was killed while trying to stop the gunman, Adam Lanza.
John Woodall, a psychiatrist who lives in Newtown and has worked on trauma response programs after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, praised the school's and the community's response to the tragedy. The memorials in Sandy Hook are gone, replaced by signs reading: "We are Sandy Hook. We Choose Love." The banner in front of Town Hall reads: "Together We Birth a Culture of Peace."
"It's almost as if this horrible event stripped people of the artifice that usually keeps people separate from each other," Dr. Woodall said.
"The respect and kindness among people has been remarkable. You might think the words 'Newtown student' -- like 'Columbine student' -- would bring to mind kids who are traumatized, psychological casualties. But we're determined to have 'Newtown student' mean something different -- to become a role model for the best of humanity, for showing that light can come out of darkness."